A wonderful tradition, entirely unknown outside the restaurant kitchen … and probably not much practiced in North America in any case, is the impromptu staff lunch.
After the noon rush at Sorrentino’s Downtown, executive chef Alberto Alboreggia gathers up food in the kitchen that is surplus to the customers’ needs: Fish skeletons from which the filets have been cut, what’s left of a primal beef detached of its sirloins and prime rib, vegetable peelings and so on.
Every day, Alberto converts them into a delicious, quick staff lunch.
A 22 pound, never-frozen fresh salmon has already been stripped of its salmon steaks and filets. But left over is the head, the fins, all the meat buried alongside the spine. There are pounds of edible fish here, but it’s of little interest to the front-of-house guest.
A few pieces of chicken might be left from the night before. Roasted potatoes – quartered, peeled, sprinkled with olive oil and herbs – remain in the kitchen after the just-served lunch.
Alboreggia doesn’t think much about the staff meal. He doesn’t need to. The recipes he knows in his head … or he makes up as he goes along.
The head of the salmon is boiled for a few minutes, then, with the rest of the salmon bits, brushed or tossed in soya, garlic, chili, honey and cumin. It’s all popped in the oven for a few minutes, emerging hot, roasted, and spiced, a delicious main course for the staff lunch.
Sorrentino’s Downtown sous-chef Muru Natarajan has chopped up and tossed the left-over chicken into an impromptu curry. From South India, Muru could make a delicious curry in his sleep. It is very, very good, but will never make its way to the front of this high-end Italian restaurant.
Finally, there are sea-bass bits and pieces, like the much bigger salmon. It’s gone into impromptu staff luncheon chowder that’s been sweetened and spiced with brown sugar and Tabasco sauce.
Plus there’s left-over rice – a little too dry to be part of a main course, but still just the ticket to add some carbs to the staff meal.
Alberto ‘fesses up. He hates throwing out anything. Pre-staff lunch, the salmon head had already been split open and the “head jelly” removed, to be used as flavourful gelatin for salmon aspic or terrine – a delicacy spread on crackers as a pre-dinner appetizer.
Vegetable peelings, seafood shells, fish heads and bones, beef, pork and chicken bones … it can all be used for sauces etc., to make what’s going out to the customers even better.
Carrot peelings, for instance, can be pureed into a demi-glaze. Around fish eyes and in their cheeks, Alberto removes another soft gelatinous tissue that can be used in so many ways. The green gunk in a lobster’s cavity … it adds flavour to a lobster pasta sauce or a lobster bisque. The fat cut off a chicken supreme (an uncooked high-end chicken breast) can be cut into chicklets, fried with ginger and garlic. “It’s probably 600 calories a bite,” grins Alberto, “but it’s soooo good!
“In my kitchen,” he declares, “nothing ends up being thrown out.”
Nothing but potato peelings, that is. Alberto finds them a touch too sandy to be recycled.
To Sorrentino’s Downtown employees, the staff lunch … just is. It’s not an elaborate ritual where all gather around a table to spend a half-hour eating, perhaps a glass of wine, talking about the food of the particular meal and food in general.
No, staff members just wander by, grab a bowl and a spoon, help themselves, eat in 10 or 15 minutes. They may or may not join three or four others sitting in a utility room off the kitchen before returning to their duties.
Sous chef Muru helps himself to his curry and rice, kitchen helper Mandy Tam calls dibs on the salmon head. What we too often throw out in Canada are delicacies elsewhere.
Having asked to come to a Sorrentino’s staff lunch, I am loving the roasted garlic and honey salmon being pried out from between the spinal bones. The seabass soup, made so effortlessly, is something I’d pay $10 or more if on the menu. The curry made from left-over chicken creates a delicate blend of spices dancing through my mouth.
For Sorrentino’s kitchen staff, however, it’s just another quick lunch, whipped up by Alboreggia and Natarajan to eat on the run. How quickly the extraordinary becomes ordinary.
But for the visitor it’s an example of how a creative chef can use everything about the animal, the fish or the plant, from the “leftovers” creating a delicious and nutritious experience