IF YOU CAN’T stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. But if you love it, nothing is as exhilarating as cooking at a busy restaurant.
Don’t believe me? Snag a seat at La Bête’s open-kitchen counter during the Friday-night rush, and ask Eric Hoover what it’s like to do what you love with your mise in its place, your buddies at your elbow and a steady stream of tickets pouring in.
“No matter how long you’ve been doing it, you still get that bit of adrenaline rush,” says Hoover, 32, working the line at the Capitol Hill bistro. The longer you do it, “the moves become second nature, a natural reflex.”
The hardest part of his job? “When it’s slow — and you’re not going crazy.”
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Spinning from his station to the stove, Hoover ducks his lanky frame under a roaring hood, places two thick burgers on the grill, pulls ethereal pork rinds from the fryer and pivots back to the beat of Mick Jagger howling, “I can’t GET no-oh, sat-is-FAC-tion.”
The satisfaction that comes from doing a difficult job well is what keeps Hoover — who spent 10 years working high-volume at Anthony’s Restaurants — in the kitchen at one of the hottest jobs in town. Literally.
“Gentlemen!” shouts a waiter. “Fire the pasta course for 31, split!”
That call to action triggers sous chef Josh McClenahan to drop fresh squid-ink tagliatelle into boiling water, simultaneously snag a saute pan and place it front-and-center on the hottest part of his cast-iron stove. “At night we don’t wipe it down because it’s screaming hot,” McClenahan says of the French flat-top he mans at night and scrubs by day.
McClenahan, 34, is grace under fire.
Here he is, inserting a metal cake-tester into a hunk of beef. There he is, showering roasted carrots with salt. A study in ambidexterity, he whisks sunchoke purée with his left hand, then sautes a gnocchi set — garlic, bacon, mushrooms, leeks and greens compiled in advance — with his right.
A self-described “late bloomer in the cooking industry,” he’s also a former Navy electrician who once kept a fleet of SH-60 Seahawk helicopters in flying order.
Cooking in a Seattle Seahawks cap, McClenahan’s mien is methodical, his moves practiced and precise. Though he’s a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu and an alumnus of Rover’s, “the Navy taught me that,” says the chef, who joined up at 19. “Signing off for a multimillion-dollar aircraft and having pilots’ lives in your hands puts a lot of pressure on you at a young age.”
Pressure to produce swiftly during the rush puts the screws to 30-year-old Josh Gaylor, La Bête’s cold-station cook. He’s charged with everything from slicing and artfully plating cheeses and charcuterie to prepping starter courses composed of umpteen ingredients, to carefully torching crème brûlée.
“How many? Five all day?” prods owner Aleks Dimitrijevic, stepping into the pantry zone as salad orders stack up, while Gaylor pairs chicken-liver mousse with the walnut-raisin toast he made — from scratch — earlier.
In the heat of the night, it’s all about having each other’s back.
That’s done silently (McClenahan’s hand on Hoover’s spine while stepping right, hot pan in hand). And audibly (“watch-out-watch-out-watch-out!” Hoover cautions as McClenahan catches a saucepan listing overboard).
Keeping order amid chaos “is a dynamic of pulling together,” Gaylor says. “Communicating well is the most important thing.”
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Marcus Yam is a Times staff photographer.