THE NASTY BITS Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
By ANTHONY BOURDAIN
BLOOMSBURY Copyright © 2006 Anthony Bourdain
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-58234-451-5
Chapter One SYSTEM D
Debrouillard is what every plongeur wants to be called. A debrouillard is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will se debrouiller-get it done somehow. -George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
He was a master of the short cut, the easy way out, the System D. D. stands for de as in debrouiller or demerder-to extricate ... and to a hair (he) knew how to stay out of trouble. He was a very skillful cook, and a very bad one. -Nicolas Freeling, The Kitchen
I STUMBLED ACROSS MY first reference to the mysterious and sinister-sounding System D in Nicolas Freeling's wonderful memoir of his years as a Grand Hotel cook in France. I knew the word debrouillard already, having enjoyed reading about the concept of se debrouiller or se demerder in Orwell's earlier account of his dishwashing/prep-cooking at the pseudonymous Hotel "X" in Paris. But what sent chills down my spine and sent me racing back to my weathered copies of both books was a casual remark by my French sous-chef as he watched a busboy repairing a piece of kitchen equipment with a teaspoon.
"Ahh ... Le SystemD!" he said with a smirk, and a warm expression of recognition. For a moment, I thought I'd stumbled across a secret society-a coven of warlocks, a subculture within our subculture of chefs and cooks and restaurant lifers. I was annoyed that what I had thought to be an ancient term from kitchens past, a little bit of culinary arcanum, was in fact still in use, and I felt suddenly threatened-as if my kitchen, my crew, my team of talented throat slitters, fire starters, mercenaries, and hooligans was secretly a hotbed of Trilateralists, Illuminati, Snake Handlers, or Satan Worshippers. I felt left out. I asked, "Did you say 'System D'? What is 'System D'?"
"Tu connais ... you know MacGyver?" replied my sous-chef thoughtfully.
I nodded, flashing onto the idiotic detective series of years back where the hero would regularly bust out of maximum-security prisons and perform emergency neurosurgery using nothing more than a paper clip and a gum wrapper.
"MacGyver!" pronounced my sous-chef, "CA ... ca c'est System D."
Whether familiar with the term or not, I have always assigned great value to debrouillards, and at various times in my career, particularly when I was a line cook, I have taken great pride in being one. The ability to think fast, to adapt, to improvise when in danger of falling "in the weeds" or dans la merde, even if a little corner-cutting is required, has been a point of pride with me for years. My previous sous-chef, Steven, a very talented cook with a criminal mind, was a Grandmaster Debrouillard, a Sergeant Bilko-like character who, in addition to being a superb saucier, was fully versed in the manly arts of scrounging, refrigeration repair, surreptitious entry, intelligence collection, subornation, and the effortless acquisition of objects which did not rightly belong to him. He was a very useful person to have around. If I ran out of calves' liver or shell steaks in the middle of a busy Saturday night, Steven could be counted on to slip out the kitchen door and return a few moments later with whatever I needed. Where he got the stuff I never knew. I only knew not to ask. System D, to work right, requires a certain level of plausible deniability.
I am always pleased to find historical precedent for my darker urges. And in the restaurant business, where one's moods tend to swing from near euphoria to crushing misery and back again at least ten times a night, it's always useful to remember that my crew and I are part of a vast and well-documented continuum going back centuries. Why did this particular reference hold such magic for me, though? I had to think about that. Why this perverse pride in finding that my lowest, sleaziest moments of mid-rush hackwork were firmly rooted in tradition, going back to the French masters?
It all comes down to the old dichotomy, the razor's edge of volume versus quality. God knows, all chefs want to make perfect food. We'd like to make sixty-five to seventy-five absolutely flawless meals per night, every plate a reflection of our best efforts, all our training and experience, only the finest, most expensive, most seasonal ingredients available-and we'd like to make a lot of money for our masters while we do it. But this is the real world. Most restaurants can't charge a hundred fifty bucks a customer for food alone. Sixty-five meals a night (at least in my place) means we'll all be out of work-and fast. Two hundred fifty to three hundred meals a night is more like it when you're talking about a successful New York City restaurant and job security for your posse of well-paid culinarians in the same breath. When I was the executive chef, a few years ago, of a stadium-size nightclub/supper club near Times Square, it often meant six and seven hundred meals a night-a logistical challenge that called for skills closer to those of an air-traffic controller or a military ordnance officer than to those of a classically trained chef. When you're cranking out that kind of volume, especially during the pretheater rush, when everybody in the room expects to wolf down three courses and dessert and still be out the door in time to make curtain for Cats, you'd better be fast. They want that food. They want it hot, cooked the way they asked, and they want it soon. It may feel wonderfully fulfilling, putting one's best foot forward, sweating and fiddling and wiping and sculpting impeccable little spires of a-la-minute food for an adoring dining public, but there is another kind of satisfaction: the grim pride of the journeyman professional, the cook who's got moves, who can kick ass on the line, who can do serious numbers, and "get through." "How many'd we do?" is the question frequently asked at the end of the shift, when the cooks collapse onto flour sacks and milk crates and piles of dirty linen, smoking their cigarettes, drinking their shift cocktails, and contemplating what kind of felonious activity they will soon take part in during their afterwork leisure hours. If the number is high (say three hundred fifty dinners), and there have been few returns or customer complaints, if only happy diners waddled satiated out the crowded doorway to the restaurant, squeezing painfully past the incoming mob-well, that's a statistic we can all appreciate and understand. Drinks and congratulations are in order. We made it through! We didn't fall into the weeds! We ran out of nothing! What could be better? We not only served a monstrous number of meals without a glitch, but we served them on time and in good order. We avoided disaster. We brought honor and riches to our clan.
And if it was a particularly brutal night, if the specter of meltdown loomed near, if we just narrowly avoided the kind of horror that occurs when the kitchen "loses it," if we managed to just squeak through without taking major casualties-then all the better. Picture the worst-case scenario: The saucier is getting hit all night long. Everything ordered is coming off his station instead of being spread around between broiler, middle, and appetizer stations. The poor bastard is being pounded, constantly in danger of falling behind, running out of mise en place, losing his mind. Nothing is worse in a situation like this than that terrible moment when a line cook looks up at the board, scans the long line of fluttering dinner orders, and sees only incomprehensible cuneiform, Sanskrit-like chicken scratches that to his shriveled, dehydrated, poached, and abused brain mean nothing at all. He's "lost it" ... he's dans la merde now ... and because kitchen work requires a great deal of coordination and teamwork, he could take the whole line down with him.
But if you're lucky enough to have a well-oiled machine working for you-a bunch of hardcore, ass-kicking, name-taking derouillards on the payroll-the chances of catastrophe are slim in the extreme. Old-school cholos, assasinos, vato locos, veterans of many kitchens like my cooks, they know what to do when there's no space left on the stove for another saute pan. They know how to bump closed a broiler or shut a refrigerator door when their hands are full. They know when to step into another cook's station-and, more importantly, how to do it-without that station becoming a rugby match of crushed toes and sharp elbows. They know how to sling dirty pots twenty-five feet across the kitchen so that they drop neatly into the pot sink without disfiguring the dishwasher.
It's when the orders are pouring in and the supplies are running low and the tempers are growing thin that one sees System D practiced at its highest level. Hot water heater explodes? No sweat. Just push the rillettes over and start boiling water, carnale. Run out of those nice square dinner plates for the lobster spring rolls? No problem. Dummy up a new presentation and serve on the round plates. We know what to do. Meat grinder broken? It's steak tartare cut by hand, papi. Few things are more beautiful to me than a bunch of thuggish, heavily-tattooed line cooks moving around each other like ballerinas on a busy Saturday night. Seeing two guys who'd just as soon cut each other's throats in their off hours moving in unison with grace and ease can be as uplifting as any chemical stimulant or organized religion.
At times like these, under fire, in battlefield conditions, the kitchen reverts to what it has always been since Escoffier's time: a brigade, a paramilitary unit, in which everyone knows what they have to do, and how to do it. Officers make fast and necessarily irrevocable decisions, and damn the torpedoes if it isn't the best decision. There's no time to dither, to waffle, to ponder, to empathize when there's incoming fire threatening to bring the whole kitchen and dining room crashing down. Move forward! Take that hill! Forced out of expediency to lose that cute herbal garnish on the Saddle of Lamb en Crepinette? It's a shame-but we'll cry about it later, at the after-action reporting, when we're all comfortably sucking down late-night sushi together and drinking iced sake or vodka shots at some chef-friendly joint. Right now it's System D time, bro'-and there's no time for that bouquet of herbs. There's the fish to contend with, and one of the runners just fell down the stairs and broke his ankle, and they need forks on table number seven, and that twelve-top arrived late and is eating up half the dining room while they linger over cognacs, and the customers waiting by the bar and shivering in the street are starting to get that angry, haunted look you see in lynch mobs and Liberian militia who've spent too much time in the jungle. Running out of arugula? Substitute mache for Chrissakes! Fluff it out with spinach, watercress ... anything green!
At times like these, even one heroic practitioner of System D can save the day, step in and turn the tide. One guy can make the difference between another successful Saturday night and total chaos. We can go home laughing about all we endured, feeling good about ourselves, talking about the bus that didn't hit us instead of slinking out the door quietly, mulling over la puta vida, muttering half-formed recriminations.
Now, I've heard and seen some very fine chefs sneer at The System. "I would never do that," they say, when told of some culinary outrage performed in another kitchen. "Never!" they insist, with all the assurance of an officer on the prewar Maginot Line. But when the Hun starts pouring over the wall, and there's no fire support, and the rear guard is in full retreat-these same chefs are often the first guys to commit food crimes that even the most pragmatic practitioner of System D would never (okay, almost never) do.
Fast well-done steak? I've watched French grads of three-star kitchens squeeze the blood out of filet mignons with their full body weight, turning a medium to well in seconds. I've watched in horror as chefs have hurled beautiful chateaubriands into the deep-fat fryer, microwaved veal chops, thinned sauce with the brackish greasy water in the steam table. And when it gets busy? Everything that falls on the floor, amazingly, falls "right on the napkin." Let me tell you-that's one mighty big napkin.
System D, arguably, reached its heyday in the Victorian-era railway hotels, where the menus were huge and it was not unusual for an extra two hundred guests to show up wanting, say, the Fricassee of Lobster Thermidor-for which only fifty portions were ever available. Suddenly, Thermidor for fifty was transformed into Thermidor for two hundred. Don't ask how. You don't want to know. It is possible that the system began with the ever-changing requirements of volume cookery, only to be perpetuated by subsequent generations as the golden age of mammoth hotels began to wane and the enormous dining halls and banquet facilities of days past were faced with the necessity of serving grande luxe-style meals and bloated menus with ever-shrinking staffs and more stringent economizing. I suspect that some of the classic dishes of that era reflect System D philosophy, particularly the efforts to get more bang from limited ingredients. Potage Mongole, for instance, allowed a chef to take a little pea soup and a little tomato soup, combine them, and come up with a third menu selection. New York's fabled Delmonico's offered, at one time, a staggering array of soups, numbering over a hundred. One can only assume that not all of those were made individually and from scratch every day. Parsimonious and forward-thinking Frenchmen-already inclined to make the most of humble (read cheap) ingredients, utilized every scrap of stock meat, hoof, snout, tongue, organs, creating dishes that are now popular stand-alone and frequently expensive favorites, ordered on their own merits, rather than served as cleverly disguised by-products.
The traditional bistros that grew up around Les Halles, Paris's central marketplace, were fertile ground for hotel-trained cooks and chefs to take System D to even more extreme lengths. They had limited space to work with, most had limited capital, and the markets-whence came their clientele-generated huge amounts of what might have been considered unpalatable foodstuffs. If you're stocking your larder from a place proudly named The Tripe Pavillion, you tend to develop a cuisine heavy on boudins, tete de porc, confit of ears, stomach lining, shanks, pates, and galantines. Don't take my word for it. Read Orwell, or Freeling, or Zola's masterful Belly of Paris; nothing I've said here or will ever say approaches the terrifying accounts of mishandled food, criminally misrepresented menu items, marginal sanitation practices, and dubious sources of supply in these classic accounts. Orwell describes working ankle deep in garbage and outgoing dinners in one such establishment-and this was by no means a slophouse. Even today, French veterans of bistro cooking are masters of System D, inured as they are to working in tiny kitchens with dollhouse-size ranges, producing ten or twelve menu items despite access to only minimal storage, refrigeration, and work area, with a plongeur bumping them from behind. Work with some of these folks, even in the relatively roomy kitchens of Manhattan, and you're likely to see a number of practices they definitely do not teach at culinary school.
Of course, expediency is one thing. Laziness is another. I hate, for instance, to see a cook "sear, slice, and flash," where instead of searing, say, a gigot, then finishing to proper doneness in the oven, he'll sear the outside of the mat, slice it nearly raw, then color the slices under the salamander. I've seen jammed-up cooks searing lamb, beef, and duck simultaneously-all in the same pan. I hate that too. And instead of reducing and mounting sauces to order, in a clean pot each time, some cooks keep a veritable petri dish of reducing sauce festering on a back burner, adding unreduced sauce as needed until the pot is a crusty, horrible abomination of oversalted, scorched, and bitter swill. Not for me, thanks-and not in my kitchen. The microwave was a blessing to full-time System D experts. I've seen veterans of three-star kitchens throw absolutely raw, unseared cote de boeuf for two into a microwave oven, presumably to "warm it up" to cut cooking time!
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