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Friday Night at Lark: Staging in Seattle

Dining Room

I shook off the last drops of a slow, steady Seattle rain as I stepped through the door of Lark, a small Seattle restaurant with a big reputation for artisan-focused cuisine. The warm candlelight cast a buttery glow across the white walls and burnished wood tables. Wait staff circled the tables, setting each with starched white napkins, slender wine glasses and curved-handled silverware. Everything about the intimate but understated dining room radiated laid-back comfort, but with a tinge of seriousness. This place, while unassuming, didn’t mess around when it came to the food.

“Hey there. I remember you. Good to see you,” a familiar voice called out by the bar. I stepped forward to greet the chef, Johnathan Sundstrom. I had met him a couple of times at industry events. “Great to be here. Thanks for having me,” I said as I shook John’s hand. I had come on this rainy Friday night to stage at Lark. In the fine dining world, culinary students and aspiring cooks volunteered to work a shift, or stage (pronounced “stahge”), to gain experience with chefs they admire and to make connections for future employment. Most restaurants happily accommodate a stage, since it minimally meant a free pair of hands for the night.

John led me down the narrow stairs to the restaurant’s office. “Let’s get you set up. You have your knives and chef’s coat, right? I’ll grab you an apron.” He disappeared into the back room while I looked for an empty hook to hang my wet coat. John emerged with a black apron. “You can put your things over here,” he motioned toward the back wall as he handed me the apron. “Sorry, it’s not too fancy down here. I’ll meet you upstairs when you’re ready.” He bounded back up the staircase as I buttoned up my chef’s jacket and surveyed the room. A typical restaurant office—a dated computer and piles of turned-edged books piled in the corner, the staff’s personal items crammed into any available spot. It reminded me of being backstage at a theater production. All the polish and finery was out front for the benefit of the customer, as it should be.

So why was I here on a Friday night to stage at Lark? I wasn’t looking for a line cook position. I had asked John if I could come and work for the night for a few reasons. One, I wanted to see firsthand how a chef of his caliber put his creative and culinary spin on the gorgeous local ingredients he artfully prepares. Two, I wanted to draw inspiration from Lark’s approach and keep myself creatively charged. And three, I secretly wanted to see if I could still hack it in a restaurant kitchen.

Following the Rules

I grabbed my knife bag and retraced my steps upstairs where I found the chef in the kitchen. “Are you hungry? We’re just having family meal,” John offered. Many kitchens still observe the tradition of family meal, where a staff member makes dinner for the kitchen team and servers. It’s a chance for everyone to grab some food and a deep breath before service begins. I politely declined the chef’s generous offer. This is one of my personal rules about staging, which I developed during my culinary school days. Whenever I staged, I always strived to earn the respect of the kitchen team by working hard and staying the hell out of everyone’s way, but mostly by working hard. So Rule Number One, any and all free food must be earned.

John first introduced me to Kelly, his business partner and restaurant manager, and then to the kitchen team. There was Wiley, the sous chef and second in command of the kitchen, a tall, thin and reserved guy with a slight smile. Phil, Wiley’s partner at the stove, stockier with black hair and generous grin, bundled his energy with intensity. And John, the third cook, manned the garde manger, or cold station, where he assembled salads, charcuterie and cheese plates. Everyone greeted me warmly and with a bit of curiosity. I’m used to this. Since I’m not the typical twenty-something culinary student, guys I first meet in the kitchen are usually thinking, “What the heck is she doing here?”

A Tight Squeeze

Phil set me up with a cutting board at a small countertop adjacent to the reach-in refrigerator, tucked into a tight nook next to a large rolling rack. The kitchen at Lark is small—like a “spacious” New York City apartment. Most of the action took place at the gas stove, a massive cast iron beast that blasted orange flames straight up through the six burner grates. Behind the stove sat a double-sided refrigerated work station with wells containing pans of prepared ingredients for tonight’s menus items. Adjacent to the stove was a small “combi” oven, which Mark manned throughout service. Behind the oven sat the salad station, with small reach-in refrigerators underneath the counter. The very back of the kitchen served as the pastry and prep area since it contained the longest counter space in the place. And the dishwashing station occupied the opposite kitchen wall. A lot of equipment, food and people packed into one cozy space.

As I pulled out my chef’s knife and tucked my bag under the counter, the kitchen team was finishing the last of their prep tasks to get ready for service. Lark’s dining room seats 50 and they typically do two “turns” on a weekend night, meaning the restaurant would serve 100 or more customers. Everyone wanted to make sure they had enough ingredients ready to go, but not too much. One of the most challenging tasks in a restaurant kitchen is gauging the amount of food needed, especially at a place like Lark that didn’t take reservations.

John came back to check on me and to outline how he anticipated the evening to unfold. “It’s 5:15 now and I expect the dining room to start rocking between 6:30 and 7:00,” he explained, glancing at his watch. ”We should be winding down around 10:00 or so. I’m going to be standing at the kitchen entrance, expediting and checking plates before they go out. Later on we’ll have you stand near me so you can see all the action.”

I thanked him and checked my set-up. While the chef had been talking, someone had left me a large plastic tumbler of water. I was grateful for this, since a kitchen this small was bound to get really warm once orders started streaming in.

What’s Next?

Now it was time to put Rule Number Two in action: do every job quickly and accurately, no matter how simple or small. I asked Mark to put me to work and he gave me a dead easy job—cut some lemons into supremes. Very simple—just trim off all the rind and white pith from the lemons and then carefully slice in between the membranes to remove the delicate sections. I finished as quickly as possible while making sure the supremes had no remnants of membrane or seeds clinging to them. Once I handed them off to Phil, I put Rule Number Three into action: keep asking “what’s next?” Phil asked me to grab the tarragon and chervil from the reach-in and pick some for service. Done. What’s next? Phil set me up in the back prep area to puree a batch of recently poached sunchokes for soup. He handed me a stockpot half-filled with the lumpy, light brown tubers that look a lot like ginger root, swimming in their pale poaching liquid. I processed the nutty-tasting sunchokes in batches, cutting them with homemade vegetable stock and whipping in wads of cold butter to form a velvety cream-colored soup.

As I continued to plow through my assigned prep tasks, I noticed the energy level in the kitchen beginning to build as orders started to trickle in. “I need a meatball, a belly and a trout,” John called out to the team as they scurried into action. Wiley scooped the required ingredients from the bins in the prep island and plopped them into a sauté pan sitting on one of the volcanic burners. Phil warmed the cast iron serving vessels in the oven and finished all the baked dishes there. As I gently but swiftly wiped a bushel of chanterelle mushrooms clean with a damp towel and pulled them apart like golden taffy, I watched Wiley and Phil deftly pass dishes between them like two close-range jugglers. When an order was ready for the dining room, Wiley passed it to John who gave the plate an eagle eye and the edge a quick, careful wipe.

“All day, I need two yellowtail, a crab, three steak, and a burrata.” By 8:00, batches of orders pummeled the kitchen in rapid-fire fashion. Lark specializes in small plates, so a table of four can easily go through ten or twelve dishes in a sitting. ”Still looking for two mushroom, a mackerel, an eel, and two duck.” Wiley and Phil were cranking now, dishes swirling madly back and forth in the narrow space between them.

A Happy Accident with Crabs

John made his way toward me, plate in hand and a slight grin on his face. “We accidently made an extra crab dish, so you guys got lucky.” He handed me the plate, brimming with lumps of fresh Dungeness crab meat cradled in a nest of squid ink pasta. “You should try it first,” he offered as he snaked his way through the action and back to the expediting counter. I twirled a healthy bite onto the fork and sucked it in. Shavings of bottarga, a salted and dried tuna roe, played nicely against the sweet and tart lemony butter sauce coating the pasta and crab. Butter ran down my chin as I inhaled another bite, but I really didn’t care.

Pasta Emergency

“Okay—two mackerel, a mussel, a beet, and a cheese plate—Capricious, Fourme, and Brillat.” All the sudden Phil called out, “Anne, can you go down to dry storage and grab some squid pasta? We’re running low.” I sprinted out the back door, made a u-turn over the wet walkway and unlocked the dry storage room door. Luckily, I found the pasta stash quickly, grabbed two packages of squid spaghetti and raced back upstairs. Wiley already had a bain marie of pasta water dancing on high heat. He took the pasta out of the package and plunged it into the boiling water. I noticed a chinois, or fine strainer, set up over a prep sink. “When the pasta’s ready,” Wiley explained, “I’m going to hand it to you to drain, then I need a 3-ounce portion as fast as you can get it to me.” I grabbed two clean bar towels to shield my hand from the almost red-hot baine of pasta. “Here it is. Go!” I swiftly grabbed the pasta, drained it through the chinois, and carried it over to my station where I had placed a half-sheet pan and a jug of olive oil. I dumped the drained pasta on the pan and coated it with olive oil to keep it from sticking. I stuck one hand into the hot pasta to swirl it with the oil while grabbing a small plate under the counter with the other hand. After quickly weighing out the three ounces of pasta on a small scale, I placed it on the plate and handed it off to Wiley. “Thanks,” he smiled. “You really saved us!” I was happy to make the guy’s job a little easier any small way I could.

Chef John reappeared in the kitchen. “Why don’t you take a break from those chanterelles and stand up front where you can see more?” I circled carefully around the stove and wedged myself into a spot where I could take the finished plates from the guys and pass them on to the chef. Wiley had just composed a serving of mackerel, nestled on top of a golden dollop of butternut squash puree. The charcoal black of the cast iron dish allowed the natural colors of the dish pop. After handing the mackerel to John I watched him plate a tarte tatin, a serving of crackly puff pastry dotted with caramelized apples. It turned out that the John does double duty as Lark’s pastry chef.

Time to Bend My Knees

The chef glanced at his watch again. “It’s almost 11:00. Why don’t you go downstairs and change? There’s an open seat at the bar. We’ll make you a little food for all your hard work.” He didn’t need to tell me twice. After emerging from the basement I slid into a tall chair at the tiny bar where Kelly presented me with a menu. As I scanned the menu items I pictured the parade of gorgeous plates I had seen leaving the kitchen that night. John appeared again and his subtle smile was back too. “Do you want to order or should we surprise you?” I was more than happy to have kitchen design a menu for me.

My first reward came from the garde manger station courtesy of John. I enjoyed a plate of mizuna, a feathery Japanese salad green simply dressed in a puckery vinaigrette, alongside roasted red pepper strips and a dollop of honey-spiked onion jam. But all of these items sat in service to the star—a large spoonful of burrata, a fresh Italian cheese glistening in a shiny coat of olive oil. A fresh Italian cheese, this glorious blend of mozzarella and cream features a slightly chewy skin and a velvety smooth interior. I’ve made and enjoyed fresh mozzarella before but this was a different beast altogether. I was off to a great start.

My next plate featured a dainty slab of Spanish mackerel, quickly pan-seared and perched on top of acorn squash puree, floating in a pool of black truffle and leek broth. The richness of the mackerel married beautifully with the starchy sweetness of the squash, and the crispy skin of the fish lent a nice textural note. Many people I know shy away from mackerel’s intensity but I became a raving fan after one bite.

My third plate happily contained the dish I most wanted to try after seeing it come to life in the kitchen—emu meatballs. These deep brown jewels arrived on top of a delicate sheet of homemade pasta dotted with red chile flakes and chard ribbons. When I saw Wiley finishing an order on the stove earlier, I had wondered out loud how a game meat as lean as emu could work as a meatball. He explained that they had worked a bit of pork fat into the mix to add moisture and succulence. It worked. When I cut into one of the dark mahogany meatballs, it revealed a rosy pink interior that tasted at once like rich beef but with the lightness and fine texture of poultry.

My final dish arrived in a clear glass, a parfait dancing with red and orange hues befitting late fall. A duo of tangerine and white chocolate sorbets hid a tart, ruby-red cranberry compote. Tiny, pale green jewels of finger lime fruit had been sprinkled on top. The finger lime tree, native to Australia but recently introduced to California, bears long, cylindrical fruit containing little pearls of sour lime juice that pop in your mouth like caviar. The sourness of the finger lime complimented the sweet and citrus sorbets, leaving you feeling refreshed after dessert, not overstuffed.

As I marveled at the visual and gustatory beauty of each plate, it reminded me of how much hard work and care goes into food of this caliber. Every component, from the nuances of each sauce to how a fish is butchered to the size of a simple herb garnish, is carefully considered and scrutinized. The amount of effort and attention given to every item on every plate would astound the casual cook. And yet, good cooking merely begins with technical skill. A chef like John, who sweats over every detail on the plate, brings his knowledge and passion to the kitchen every day. During an earlier crush of orders, Wiley had called out to the chef, “anything special you want on that steak plate?” John replied, “Just some love.”

Photos used by permission from Chef Johnathan Sundstrom

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