Day in the kitchen at Rudys' 2900 restaurant

DINNER FOR DOZENS A

August 14, 1994|By Peter Jensen

A wave of panic ripples across the normally placid face of Rudy Speckamp.

It may be the evening's biggest surprise. The German-born master chef is generally as imperturbable as a frozen Alpine lake.

But he has just been informed that he has 49 customers to feed and 48 servings of his exquisite stuffed Cornish game hen with which to feed them. The news stops him in his tracks.

Oh, and did I mention? All the guests have just been seated. They expect to eat in about 10 minutes or so.

So how are you going to perform this miracle, Chef? With fishes and loaves?

"I guess I'll just have to jump up and down," he deadpans, slipping back to his stoic self.

Quickly, he orders an assistant to remove the contents of a chicken he has just used for his cooking class minutes earlier, refilling the bird with the properly seasoned stuffing he made the day before.

It is promptly readied for the oven. But the problem remains clear: Roasting takes time and he doesn't have any.

The clock continues to tick.

Cook dinner for company -- at least with a menu more ambitious than hot dogs on the grill -- and you will face an age-old problem.

You can read all the cookbooks. You can own every time-saving gadget. But when entree, vegetables, salad, bread and all the rest have to hit the table at the same exact moment either steaming hot or icy cold, that's a strain on the chef.

Yet, if it's so tough to feed a handful, how do restaurant kitchens produce so many dinners, not even knowing what patrons might order?

Thus began an expedition beyond the swinging doors.

The mission: Spend 12 hours in a restaurant kitchen.

The goal: Discover the secrets of cooking great food for legions.

The destination: Rudys' 2900 in Finksburg, a restaurant that has won acclaim for its melding of American cuisine and regional European specialties.

11:20 a.m. Cheryl steams shrimp for shrimp cocktail, David transfers sauces to steam table, Rudy argues on the phone with produce supplier over the price of asparagus.

Even in the early morning, the kitchen at Rudys' 2900 is a sultry 80 degrees.

Exhaust fans are humming. The kitchen door is wide open. A breeze filters in through the screen.

A caldron of dark brown veal stock is bubbling on the back of a stainless-steel Vulcan range. Sauces are being made and the distinctive odor of wine and sauteed shallots fill the room.

Chef Rudy is working on the special dinner for the night. While his staff is serving the regular customers upstairs, he will be in the downstairs banquet room offering a cooking demonstration for 40 people.

The menu features courses he learned as a member of the U.S. Culinary Olympic team in 1988, the culinary equivalent of the athletic competition. Afterward, the customers will all get to eat the dishes they've learned how to prepare.

Everyone on staff calls Mr. Speckamp "Chef." It is a title he has earned as a master chef, a designation bestowed on fewer than 50 people by the American Culinary Federation. Chefs are certified as masters only if they can pass a grueling 10-day test of cooking skill.

Eight people work in Rudys' kitchen. Tonight, six will be on duty including the boss: David Hamme, Cheryl Wingate, John Fisher, Chris Ichniowski and Kaui Stryhn.

The work is parceled out along the lines of a traditional commercial kitchen. Rudy is the executive chef, the big cheese, the kingfish. His second in command would normally be the sous-chef, but the position is temporarily vacant.

That makes David, 24, the saucier, next highest in the pecking order. He is quiet but confident, having worked for Rudy two years and three months, a veteran by restaurant standards. His job preparing sauces is considered of critical importance.

The remaining stations of the kitchen are of more or less equal status. Cheryl, 31, is garde-manger, the chef of the "cold kitchen" responsible for cold foods such as appetizers, desserts and salads.

John, 36, will also be assigned the cold kitchen this day and will be responsible for fried foods. He is outgoing and good-natured about the work, having survived an earlier career as a hotel manager.

Free-spirited Kaui, 22, is entremettier, the vegetable chef, but he will also run the broiler and help David with the sauteing and finishing of dishes. Chris, 23, a strapping Dundalk native and recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., is an apprentice and will float around the stations as a prep cook.

In a large hotel kitchen, these titles would be rigidly enforced and there would be other designations such as a patissier (pastry chef) or poisonnier (fish chef). But Rudys' is too small for such rigid definitions, and through the course of an evening the jobs will be obscured and chefs jump around to assist each other.

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