HORROR IN COSTA RICA, PART 3, THE DAY BEFORE THE NIGHT
As if the night before opening a restaurant isn’t in itself so nerve-wracking that sleep is nigh impossible, I had chosen to make it far more difficult still by tossing in another twist. In addition to opening a restaurant, I was making a valiant attempt to put an end to an obsessive and ugly drinking problem (yes, my own) . Talk about a recipe for twitching, fearful, sweating insomnia.
Our “day before the Big Day” prep work had gone as well as I could have hoped and I had even spent what seemed like some quality time with Randall, my appointed second. He sat and sloshed down a few Imperials and pretended to be interested while I pontificated about kitchens, food, cooking, and anything else that would keep my mind out of the bottle. Randall asked the right questions and I gladly worked at taking him under my wing. I would definitely need to nurture someone of his skill and apparent interest if I was ever to get any rest from this venture.
Speaking of rest, when I went down to my cabina, it seemed that rest would never come. I did the classic toss from one side of the bed to the other routine, moving from one pool of sweat to another. I got up and went upstairs to watch a little Monday Night Football. I drank a cup of herbal tea. I talked to my partner, John. I felt like the song from the 60’s, “I Couldn’t Sleep At All Last Night.” This was my second full day alcohol free and definitely the jumpiest, twitchiest. Yes, sleep did come, but hardly the quality of sleep that I was hoping for and needing from the night before the Big Day.
I got up at 5:15 and by 6:00 I was standing in my walk-in refrigerator over a bowl of cream set into a bowl of ice. I had been trying without success to whip egg whites and cream for the last three days for my chocolate mousse. The humidity on the southern coast of Costa Rica is so great that the cream will not whip at all, while the egg whites will stand up for a couple of minutes and then a pool of liquid appears beneath them and they collapse completely. I was sweating and chilling simultaneously while hunched over the bowl in the walk-in and OH MY GOD, the cream was actually whipping.
While I was tossing and tuning in my sweaty bed the night before I'd recalled that in the old days of kitchens, when they were all fiery cauldrons, the chefs had whipped their cream in massive copper bowls over huge tubs of ice. I even recalled that I had old cookbooks that prescribed this very method being performed as recently as thirty years ago. I guess the advent of the kitchen-aid changed all that, huh? So in an effort to duplicate the whipping feats of the past, I dragged my entire operation into the walk-in refrigerator.
And now, realizing that my cream was indeed going to whip, I raced out to the line and threw on a doulble boiler and grabbed a bowl for my chocolate. I hastily measured it and threw in a little coffee and Meyers's rum (“Have just a tiny shot” it called to me”) for good measure. Having placed the water bath and chocolate over the flame, I raced back into the walk-in, finished the cream, and started in on the egg whites. And it was perfect; everything whipped. I yelped with glee and despite being in a 40 degree walk-in, wiped the sweat from my brow and ran to fetch the melted chocolate. I folded first cream, then whites, then cream, then more whites into the melted chocolate and by God, it was going to work and there would be chocolate mousse.
Next was the lime tart and this was another one I'd been struggling with. I'd been using sort of a cheater method for the filling which involved using canned condensed milk instead of a true custard, but gimme a break. The main problem I was having was that I’d been working with a dough recipe that I'd used for years that incorporated a lot of butter which made it really difficult to work with in this heat and humidity. Finally I achieved success by freezing the tart ramikins ( I don't have tart shells), chilling the dough as cold as I could get it without freezing it, and pressing it into the ramikins (skip the rolling pin, that's a disaster) with my hands. It finally worked and I poured in the filling. That worked too; I was on a roll. So far so good, but I was a dripping sodden mess. I'd soaked through my second t-shirt of the day and hadn't even begun the work in front of the stove.
I needed to break down and bone out eight chickens before I could move on to anything else, although my mind was reeling with the things left to do. The boning of the chickens proved a mettlesome thing, mostly because of major interruptions. As befitted an opening night, the kitchen was continually filled with people passing through asking a lot of questions. "Chef, where is this?" "Chef do you know blah blah blah?" "Chef what do we do about...?"
Despite alternating the hacking of bone with carefully orchestrated knifework, the number of chickens in front of me did not seem to be dimishing and the heat in the kitchen was building and swelling. The sweat continued to pour out of my pores, down the hollow of my back and off my forehead onto the chickens. Olman, our Tico head waiter showed up and helped me to prepare the mirepoix that I would need to start my chicken stock, but he's a talker and despite his help, I began to find his mindlessly happy chatter annoying. At this point even my own breathing was annoying. After what seemed like an eternity I finished breaking down the chickens and boning out the breasts for service. There really is nothing like the feeling of warm chicken meat clinging to your flesh in a 110 degree kitchen.
I was really starting to feel a bit weak and queasy at this point. I’d forgotten to eat anything since my corn flakes at 5:30 and the stress and lack of food in my body was getting to me. I’d been pounding water by the gallon, but it seemed to be coming out even more quickly and I went to change into t-shirt #3.
I slammed down a small bowl of black beans and jambalaya rice and went to lie down for a quick 20. Randall and Betza would be here at 1:00 and I needed to get them organized. I returned to the kitchen at 1:10 but no one was there. Just me and the food. Worried? Yeah, I was , but I started the major prep. By 1:30 I'd begun to really fret, but I keep plugging away. I assembled the mix for the fish cakes and finished the macque choux, a sort of uptown Creole creamed corn.
Ryan, John’s brother and another partner in our jungle venture, zipped in from a trip out into the world and told me he had just seen both Randall and Betza down at the soda (small local cafe) at the bottom of our driveway. I dispatched him on a search and rescue mission just short of 2:00. Betza showed up shortly thereafter in a majorly petulant mood. She had been dating Ryan and he was dumping her; (never sleep with the help is the lesson here) but there was still no sign of Randall.
Katya showed up just moments later and at least I have two of my staff. I asked Betza as to whether or not she had seen Randall, but she just shrugged indifferently. I dove into Randall's prep and really start to stress. I'd almost soaked through shirt #3 and it wasn’t even 3:00. John kept stopping by to tell me that our reservations were growing and it looked like we'd have a full house. I'd asked him to keep the number of guests at 30, but it's hard to say no to business on opening night.
It had become apparent in the hubbub of waiters chattering, my new dishwasher arriving, and the general confusion, that Randall would be a no-show on the most important night we might have. He’d been at the soda, had been seen there by a number of people, and then was seen riding the other way on his bicycle; away from the Lookout and back towards Ojochal. I would have stopped to be confused, but I don’t have time. At that point I was jamming and way too uptight. I’d gotten the girls in place and they were doing their best to pull together the salad and appetizer stations. I was starting to feel as if there was an outside chance we just might make it.
I was completely flying with the anxiety and stress of prepping not just mine, but someone else's station and convincing myself that, yes, I CAN do this. I scraped away the fish cake debris from my sticky hands and tried to make my way to the front line to get the started sauces finished and the fresh sauces started. But when the two hotel maids, plus Olman, the waiter, appeared in my already crowded kitchen and demanded to be fed, I just went off. There was too much to do, too many obstacles, and seemingly now way to do it all myself. But I knew I had to. I had to leave the kitchen and catch my breath or I was going to lose it in a big, big way.
I walked out to the front door, looked out at the ocean, heaved a series of huge sighs, caught that deep breath, wondered how it was that all of this was happening, and headed back in. I was wishing I could see the humor in it, but there was just no time for that. There was a restaurant to open, guests to feed, flesh to press and miles to go before I slept. The business waits for no one. There is either success or failure and not much room or forgiveness inbetween. And I was NOT going to fail.