KATIA KILLS THE CLEARWRAP BOX
I’ve worked in the restaurant world--the food service industry, my entire adult life, and in my industry we call it clear wrap, plastic wrap, food wrap, film or in the case of those folks just in from the outside world, Saran Wrap. You may, in fact, call it Saran Wrap at your house. What it is, is the plastic film cover that keeps food from drying out, odors from getting in and (with good wrapping practices) liquids from spilling in refrigerators and on counters. Clear wrap seals up fish, sauces and open containers. Pressed against warm purees soups and buttercreams it prevents that nasty skin from forming on top, and when double wrapped tightly, it makes a particularly efficient prophylactic against freezer burn. In the restaurant industry clear wrap is such a workplace essential as to almost be taken for granted.
And that’s where the problem starts; being taken for granted. When I was a lad coming up in the food service industry, clear wrap came in a very heavy box and wore at the box’s top a heavy-duty saw-toothed cutting blade. The box was not light (probably between 8-10 pounds), bulky and two feet long. The blade was most formidable and I saw some of the worst and bloodiest cuts of my kitchen career made by that sturdy blade. My good friend and early line-mate Steve Hall made the serious and unforgivable mistake of attempting to catch the clear wrap box as it fell from a shelf, and was rewarded with deep and painful gashes in the exact same place on the inside of either forearm. Yes, I was taught to respect the clear wrap and even more so, the amazing cutter box in which it resided.
More important than just respecting the clearwrap and its box was learning, practicing and thoroughly following the instructions and protocol for opening and readying a new box. The box was well designed, and when the instructions were properly followed (and the box was kept dry; a critical practice), the clearwrap box would last the life of the roll of clearwrap, a lovely arrangement. A poorly dispatched box, fresh out of the shrink wrap, would cause several weeks worth of misery in a kitchen that relied on clearwrap on an almost minute to minute basis. More painful than the ongoing struggle with the disintegrating box, however, was enduring the wrath of the Executive Chef each and every time he used the box himself, which in my day, was often.
It was ever so as I journeyed through the first several years of my restaurant career. Quite rarely but occasionally, one would encounter a roll of wrap that had not been cut correctly in the factory and it would begin to catch at one end of the roll or the other. This would cause the wrap to tear off for use in narrower and narrower pieces as well as creating a lump of unwound plastic on one side of the roll. When this freak of construction occurred, much consternation and unrest went on in the kitchen until the dry-goods salesman arrived to exchange it for a fresh and functional roll. As I said, rare was the roll of clearwrap that failed to do its noble and pre-determined job.
Thus trained and thus reliant on clearwrap I entered the Berkeley restaurant scene of the late 70’s. Richard Olney, James Beard and Diana Kennedy were now the icons and gurus of UC Berkeley grads with advance degrees in Art History, Romance Languages and Classical Literature. These instant cooks studied and embraced cuisine as avidly (or perhaps more so) as they had pursued their graduate degrees. Foraged mushrooms, balsamic vinegars, mesquite grilled fish and dry aged meats were now the buzzwords that informed their newfound consciousness. New to their world, I saw and used fresh herbs for the first time and was educated as to the many different types of olive oils and the specialization of their applications.
But the Berkeley-ites were as new to my world as I was to theirs, and almost immediately I realized that the things I had come to take for granted in professional kitchens were unknown quantities to the well-read neophytes. When I first started at the 4th Street Grill, it took two people to man the grill (most certainly a one cook operation in any standard restaurant) on a busy night. Organizational skills I had thought were de rigeur for any trained cook, for example, reading and organizing the orders from the waiters were looked upon as arcane and mysterious gifts. So I may not have known my cold pressed olive oils from my pomaces, but I could run the grill by myself on a busy night, and that was regarded as a worthy skill.
Oddly enough, among the arcane and mysterious skills unknown to my new workmates was mastery or even basic understanding of clearwrap. The clearwrap box at the 4th St, Grill was in a perpetual state of disintegration, the blade was used almost as a last resort (why can’t you just pull it off?) and the issue of the film rolling over on itself and bunching up at one end was seemingly a way of life. It amazed and alarmed me that these would-be wannabe cooks with one and sometimes two advanced degrees were at sea with the clear wrap box. It may not have been imported Sherry vinegar or a roll of peppery pancetta, but in its own way it was even more vital to the function of the kitchen. The day that a new roll arrived, I took two of the lead cooks and a waiter aside and revealed the secret of how to set up the clearwrap box for continuous and uninterrupted service. I taught them that clearwrap was not just your friend, but a tool, a part of happy and productive kitchen life.
In the ensuing years, I traveled to the East Coast, to Los Angeles, the Napa Valley and ultimately returned to the San Francisco area to ply my trade and kitchen skills. I watched as clearwrap manufacturers from coast to coast tried in vain to improve on the mysterious and baffling box. The cutter blades were changed from steel to plastic and then (this was short lived) to sandpaper. Adherent sheets of plastic were affixed to the front of the boxes so as to protect errant flesh from the sawtoothed blades. Warnings were printed boldly on each box as if the cooks might actually read them. Precautions were taken, but it seemed that the art of clear wrap was fading away as rapidly as the art of correctly boning a chicken.
Which brings us to where I am now: Chef at an Eco-Lodge deep on the south Pacific coast of Costa Rica, working in a kitchen that teeters between the old and the new. I am the only gringo on a kitchen staff of four. We have food processors and a Kitchen-Aide, but grind corn by hand for tortillas and make our own tamales. We work with fresh and local ingredients, and here, where it is perpetually hot and the life expectancy of foods not properly cared for is limited at best: knowledge and mastery of the clear wrap takes me back to those Berkeley days among the sophisticated and perhaps over-educated (did I say that?) students of cooking.
Here in our kitchen overlooking the blue Pacific, the clearwrap box seems to perpetually sit in a pool of water and the disintegration process is rapid. More often than not I am faced with a large naked tube of plastic film. It needs to be lugged to the table, where it rolls back and forth as one tries to steady it long enough to stretch out the needed amount and then grope for a knife with which to cut the film from the roll. With any luck, one can then peel the film off the table and wrap one’s chicken or cover one’s soup. This is so prevalent a practice, here in Costa Rica that the clear wrap is even sold in the grocery stores sans the box; just the roll and nothing more.
Imagine then, my anticipation as our roll of clearwrap neared its end in our jungle kitchen, and a new roll had been ordered and even delivered. I could scarcely wait to peel the shrinkwrap off that new box, undo the top, slide out and reverse the cutter, peel that first length of film off the roll and cut it neatly with the saw-toothed blade. The feeling of being able to stretch the film taut over my newly made salad dressing without having to fight it’s tendency to wrinkle and tear and without having to peel it off the table would be one I’d treasure over and over again.
At long last I peeled the last grudging sheet of film from the old roll and happily tossed the tube into the recycling barrel. I asked my new helper, Katia, an somewhat excitable and slightly headstrong woman to bring me the new roll of clearwrap from the bodega (storeroom) so we could unwrap it and put in immediately to good use. I stepped to the phone to place my produce order and chatted a bit about lettuces and their availability with my grower. I turned back to the kitchen and there on my prep table was a giant roll of film, brand new, removed from the box and gleaming naked as the day it rolled off the machine. Katia stood back proudly and beamed at me, “Aqui esta, Chef”, or, here it is. She had neatly removed it from the box, very professionally broken down and crushed the offending cardboard and smashed it all into the paper recycling bin. I yelped as if I’d been bitten by fire ants. I reeled around the kitchen in horror, the crushed cardboard box dangling from my helpless hands. And yes, I nearly cried.
I now have at least another four months of battling the clearwap roll each and every time I need to wrap my fish filets, cover my mango salsa or press a protective layer over my camote-platano puree. I will lug the large and unwieldy plastic roll out to the table, try to still and center it long enough to peel some film away and I will promise myself that this next time, I and only I will touch the box.