Discovering the Art of Craft
Posted June 19, 2018 6:39 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Journalists get curious and they start asking questions. One day James Estrin decided he wanted to know what goes on behind the kitchen door of a fancy restaurant, the sort of place where people dress up for the meal and the pork chop costs $55. Estrin has been a staff photographer for The New York Times since 1992, and told me he wanted to document the work that goes into delivering that sort of experience. “Not so much the food,” he said. “I wanted to see the people and the culture they share, backstage.”
I sent him to Craft, which chef Tom Colicchio opened in 2001, on East 19th Street in Manhattan. Craft is by no means a theatrical restaurant. There is no open kitchen to draw a guest’s attention, and Colicchio does not generally stride the dining room accepting accolades and air-kissing models, bankers and those who gather around them. In fact, he is often not in the restaurant at all. The food his cooks make is simple and simply served, with a minimum of narrative fuss. The staff limits its attentions to the needs and wants of its customers. Among them, there is no preening.
That takes a lot of work. Simplicity in a restaurant, Colicchio has written, does not mean simplistic. Quite the opposite. Indeed, every aspect of a meal at Craft reflects a near-fetishistic desire for perfection, from the quality of a stock or a sliced tomato to the spotless gleam of a wineglass that has been polished three times. The restaurant’s 84 employees share this desire individually and as a team. They work as an orchestra or a military platoon does, with each member dependent on the others for success: 22 hours a day, seven days a week.
Estrin spent six days at Craft, at various hours of the day and night, photographing its employees at work. What surprised him about the experience, he said, “was the sheer physicality of the labor, and the precision of it.” Also, the camaraderie. “It was amazing to me,” he said, the degree to which “each role in the restaurant depends on someone else doing a job perfectly, and how if someone doesn’t, everything falls apart.”
The work starts very early in the morning.
Santos Ramirez is Craft’s head porter, responsible for opening the restaurant, among other tasks, and cleaning it before the first cooks arrive. His workday begins at 4:30 a.m. and ends eight to 10 hours later.
Ericilia Polanco is a prep cook at the restaurant. Along with her colleagues, Teolinda Yascaribay and Juana Tapia, she prepares all the vegetables for the lunch and dinner services, picks all the herbs, cleans all the fruit. The work they do is repetitive, exacting and a benefit to every cook above them in the chain of command: those who make salads; those who make fish; those who make grains and potatoes, mushrooms and pasta; those who roast meat; those who make pastry; the sous-chefs who lead them; the chef de cuisine in charge of them all. Jake Epstein is a sous-chef who arrives each morning before 7, to prepare stocks and organize the kitchen before lunch customers arrive at noon.
It continues through the lunch hour and afternoon.
At Craft, everyone does everything, according to the restaurant’s needs. Kurt Brown, the restaurant’s general manager, runs food to the dining room during lunch.
As the dinner hour looms, Sebastian Plainfield, another sous-chef, makes pasta. Upstairs, Sara Chamberlin, a sommelier, stocks bottles of wine in the “cellar” above the dining room.
Before the dinner rush: A rushed dinner.
Dinner at Craft is not always eaten in the dining room. In late afternoon, Michal Shelkowitz, the pastry chef, has hers standing up at her station with her pastry cooks, Nicholas Antonelli and Kimberly Limoncelli.
The boosting of workplace morale requires doughnuts as often in luxe restaurants as anywhere else. Mia Mignot, the assistant general manager, and Cesar Caicedo, a captain, share the treats. The hierarchy of the dining room and bar, which restaurant people call “the front of the house,” mirrors the one in the kitchen. The general manager is at the top, followed by assistant GMs and captains, who manage the business of each table of guests, taking their orders for food and wine, interacting with them, making things nice. Front waiters serve food and refill water glasses; back waiters clear plates and crumbs; runners run food from the kitchen up to the dining room. The staff is close.
Craft employees call the place they put together bread baskets “the orange room,” for its color. It is also where they enter their orders into a computer that sends them to the kitchen, where they can communicate with one another about the needs of their tables, and gather their wits. On the far wall is a blackboard on which they can keep track of how many orders remain of particular dishes or ingredients, before they must be taken off the menu for the night. (On this evening, there is a shortage of the Ganevat De Toute Beauté, a biodynamic red wine from the Jura region of France.)
The kitchen runs like a brigade, and Kyle Koenig, the chef de cuisine, occupies the top position — save for Colicchio’s as chef and owner. Miguel Fajardo, a cook on the fish station, stands to his left. Another cook, Leksi Bunnell, works on the meat-roast station; her tattoo depicts a skyline on the blade of a chef’s knife. Koenig arrives around noon, leaves around midnight, and examines every plate of food served.
Colicchio no longer cooks regularly at the restaurant. He has other kitchens to tend to, along with events and a television career. But he keeps his hand in with private dinners and special events in the restaurant’s private dining room.
Late evening, mopping up.
The wineglasses at Craft are wiped and polished many times before a customer ever sees them. Kelvin Puello, a front waiter, tends to a spot late in the evening, as dinner service winds down.
Each night ends with accounting and garbage. Edward Farley, a captain, counts tips. Then, at 12:59 a.m., the last of the trash is taken out to the street by Rick Taveras, a night porter. The restaurant is locked until Ramirez, the head porter, returns a few hours later to start a new day.