Another Day in Poe's Kitchen at The Rattlesnake

Chef Brian Poe shows you the world in the back of the house.

Archive for June, 2009

Brunch—the right meal at the right time

I was in and out of hotels for 15 years. Of all the things I’m grateful for now that I’m running an independent kitchen, the number one thing might be the fact that I don’t have to get up at 5 in the morning to cook eggs for the breakfast shift.

Don’t get me wrong—I like eggs. Quail eggs, goose eggs, fish eggs, chicken eggs—I like them all, cooked or raw. I understand their importance in baking. I respect their importance in binding. I grasp their importance in soufflés. I even wish them well in hatching so long as it’s not in my kitchen. I know how to make zabaglione (whip it—whip it good)! A few good egg whites are the secret to a good margarita or pisco sour; a few good yolks, combined at the right time, ensure a perfect Caesar salad. Introduce some clarified butter to your yolks and you have a brilliant béarnaise or hollandaise. The only thing I dislike about eggs is the hour at which they are usually prepared. Both my aioli and my mayo agree with me that we all get along better after 10 AM.

Eggs were introduced to me early in my career. When I was 21, clocking in at the Auburn University Hotel & Conference Center, I was told that if I wanted to move out of the pantry plating salads and desserts and onto the hot line, I would first have to work a few months on the breakfast hot line cooking eggs. “Absolutely, chef—anything it takes to learn to cook,” I said—only to backtrack with an incredulous “you want me to be here at what time?” at the stern sound of the dread phrase  “5:30 AM.” My stomach churned at the thought of being awake at that hour (still does).

My first assignment was to take home an omelette pan and learn to flip a slice of bread. I was told to focus on the quick push and pull of the pan until the bread became airborne. The next trick was to catch the bread. For weeks I wandered around the house flipping bread slices, all to win the envied position of a line cook. Now it’s the first thing I teach the aspiring chefs that work with me.

My first shift at that godforsaken hour was not what I expected. The breakfast chef showed up late in a sweat, his hands shaking. He indicated that he may have had a few drinks over the course of a sleepless night. The other cooks moved differently than the ones on the evening crew—still wearing the crinkles of the pillowcase, half-awake. The coffee machine slammed. The toaster needed heating. The servers had to go through the ritual of cursing the night crew for not bringing up the white bread or stocking the butters—and our crew to get EVERYTHING READY NOW, because customers would be streaming in at any moment. It was up to us to start their days off right.

It was a scene that will never to be repeated at Poe’s Kitchen. But brunch service—that’s a different story.

Sandwiched between the Saturday bar crawl and the Monday back-to-work grind, Sunday brunch may just be the most leisurely, civilized meal of the week. And as of July 5, we’ll be offering it here. Get up as late as you like, come on up to the roof deck, kick back with an Argentine bellini or a watermelon margarita and take a mini-vacation. 

You bet I’ll be flipping omelettes. 

In the next day or two you can check out the brunch menu on our website—keep your eyes peeled for everything from grilled doughnuts with caramel-and-champagne foam to eggs benedict with grilled ham and jalapeño hollandaise over my signature grilled green chile cornbread:

cornbread crop 2

Menu writing: My round-the-clock ritual

Menu writing is incredibly therapeutic for me. Sometimes I compare the process to dog nesting; other times it’s as though I’m having my own lovers’ quarrel. In the first case, it’s an instinctive ritual: I wake up in the morning, have a cup (or three) of coffee, scan the paper, check my horoscope, then maybe have a cigarette or two while I putter around the house on pure nervous energy. Eventually I head out to the back garden; it’s nothing fancy, but it contains all my favorites—herbs, tomatoes, squash, grapes, peppers and some flowers to keep the bumblebees happy—and I wander the rows for awhile. Finally I settle down—doglike, in circles, with a sniff here and scratch there—to relax and write.

I turn on some music—today it’s classic New Orleans jazz—and light another cigarette. Even though it’s raining, the aura of summer is palpable; I’m feeling basil, strawberry, a little jalapeno, maybe some cherries. Beija cachaça—a Brazilian sugar cane spirit—and the white peach sangria that Lovewell (the Rattlesnake’s assistant GM) has been working on also pop up in my thoughts. Meanwhile I’m scanning the seasonal produce calendar and having a look at the latest lists from my fish purveyors. Now hunger pains are starting to worsen my nervous energy. Time to focus, keep it simple: raspberries and bananas, graham cracker crust, whipped cream…what about popsicles? Perhaps watermelon-basil popsicles with kiwi syrup? Hmmm. Now I’m thinking…

       popsicle ingredients popsicles in molds

Or not. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon and all I’ve put in my gut so far is coffee. I’m starving, but I’ve got lots to do besides eat: for instance, stop by the bookstore to pick up The United States of Arugula, which I should have read three years ago (have you? What did you think? Comments welcome)—which means I’ll probably make an impulse cookbook purchase as well. (The cookbook collection in my home office spills over into the kitchen and basement—where every recipe I’ve ever written is crammed into a few filing cabinets.) I’m also going to pick up some watermelon, basil, kiwi, and popsicle molds. I’ll bring along a notepad, pen, and a pocket tape recorder, just in case any new ideas spring forth along the way. This whole therapeutic cycle itself makes me nuts—but I embrace it in the name of creativity.

So off I go…

My shopping’s done; I’ve got 45 popsicle trays and I’m going to use them—though I’ve dropped the basil in favor of rhubarb. So look for watermelon, rhubarb, and kiwi popsicles on this week’s Unleashed menu. I treat myself to my favorite day-off snack—a beer and a burger beachside at Tides in Nahant—and scan Fast Company, thinking about how far American food has come. In the late 1980s, Lee Iacocca wrote in Talking Straight of chefs as dungeon dwellers, with their dirty coats and messy duties. Now I’m thumbing through business magazines that put events like the World Pork Expo on their calendars. A few months ago The Economist had an article about the global clamor over chile peppers. And meanwhile, on page 13 of The Improper Bostonian is a full page ad for Poe’s Kitchen (along with our sister restaurants, Parish Café and Bukowski’s Tavern). Very humbling. Very exciting.

Ten hours later—midnight. I’ve since been to the bookstore, followed by the Omni Parker House for a drink. Next thing I knew I’d popped in to Eastern Standard for an oyster, La Verdad for a taco, Uni for sashimi, Sonsie to sample the scallops, Sel de la Terre for crab ravioli, the Back Bay Hotel to say hello, and Clery’s for a nightcap before heading home. Talk about a crawl! Now I’m back in my office and still honing the Unleashed menu, my head—not to mention my notepad and tape recorder—full of ideas. But it’s also full of questions. What works best? Does this fit with that? Will it be a hit? Does it matter? Are we moving forward?

This is where the lovers’ quarrel begins.

For me—especially now, as I try to strike a balance between upscale cuisine and comfort food, to marry fine dining with bar snacking—writing menus is like having an argument in a secure relationship. It begins almost by accident. First the wrong words come out. Is it too late to take them all back? Doors close; there’s silence. I pace the floors, wondering if this thing will ever work out. Then, just when I need it most, the apology comes, the passionate make-up—and the menu comes together! Poe’s Kitchen and the Rattlesnake are still in love!
From the inked scribbles filling five notebooks piled on the desk, a few make it into my final document as I quickly type up my favorite ideas. I’ll make a few phone calls in search of the best product on Tuesday, then get ready for a full morning of prep on Wednesday. I love being in love. I love being Unleashed. I love this business.