Dennis Leaf-Smith of 112 Eatery: Chef Chat, Part 3
As the restaurant hits the seven-year mark, he gives us an insider's look at 112: how things have changed over the years, preparation details on some of our favorite dishes, and his secret to keeping the kitchen humming. Here's a hint: it includes nicknames--and you'll never guess what his is.
Take us back to the early days at the 112 Eatery. Who was on the opening crew?
It was myself, Landon Schoenefeld from Haute Dish, and Abe Sanchez (my old roommate)--he's now living in California.
That's quite a trio.
The three of us had all worked for Isaac at Lurcat. Abe came here to be the sous chef. And Landon and myself were just part-time, because he didn't need us full-time.
It's hard to imagine, but when we first opened, this place was slow. It was so slow. We'd get set up, open up the doors at 5 o'clock, and nothing happened.
Compared to that, you've come a long way.
Yeah, we opened January 13, 2005. I'm proud that we're still going. It's a tremendous feat that we've been open for seven years, and we're as busy as ever.
How will you celebrate the anniversary--by lighting a cupcake in the back?
We'll probably do something. I don't know what yet. Normally what happens is I'll take the guys out and say thanks. But as far as a big party, nothing major. I guess I wouldn't know what to do for a party. Put up balloons and streamers--that's a little weird. [laughs]
How has it been working with Isaac during the last several years?
It's great to work for him. He knows what he wants and he's very successful at what he does. Our company's moving in the right direction--we're on the right path.
What's the difference between the 1/05 version of the 112 and the 1/12 version of the 112?
I don't think a lot has changed actually. Physically, we've expanded to the second floor. But as far as menu philosophy and the restaurant, it's stayed relatively the same. It's still really good food at an affordable price.
Why do you think people keep coming back, again and again?
The energy. There's this feeling in the restaurant when it's busy and the music's on and all the tables are full--it's got its own energy. Plus, we don't have a lot of turnover. For the most part, a lot of the servers are still the same, and we have a lot of the same guys in the kitchen. You kind of build this rapport, and people know what they're getting into.
What's the vibe among the staff?
Really relaxed. For the most part they're all professional servers. They may also be artists or work other jobs. But they want to be here. They like the food, and they like working for Isaac and Nancy.
What's the most important thing you do in the kitchen?
Consistent execution. I think I got that from Isaac when we were opening Lurcat, and even when we started opening 112. There was lots of repetition. He always wanted to make sure we could execute a recipe all the way through. I actually think the sign of a really good restaurant is that you can't tell when the executive chef isn't in the kitchen. If you pick the right crew and train them well, there shouldn't be a drop off.
What's your favorite thing to cook at the 112?
Any sort of fish dish.
Really? What is it about fish?
With fish, there's a very fine line between it being cooked well and being overcooked. If you get overcooked salmon, it might be served with the best risotto, but if it's overcooked, it's going to ruin it all.
You like the challenge of it?
I do. I like trying to produce consistently.
OK, so what do you love most about cooking?
It's going to sound crazy, but I just love being back there with the kitchen crew. Hanging out with the guys. Cooking. The camaraderie. We're all in this together.
What do you think is the key to a well-run kitchen?
It's the consistency I talked about before, but also having fun. If you're not having fun back there, it becomes a chore. The job's not that hard, but it gets stressful sometimes--when the restaurant gets busy, or something goes wrong. But I just try to remain calm, cool, and collected.
Keep calm and carry on?
Exactly. I try to lead by example the best I can. Not lose my cool in the kitchen, not kick, yell, or scream. Just show the guys who work for me, this is how I want it done.
This isn't Gordon Ramsay's "Hell's Kitchen."
Right. Mistakes happen. There are times when I forget somebody's entrée, and there are times when a server forgets to ring one up. Just try your best not to make that mistake again, and if you can fix it, fix it.
How do you keep things light?
We're always joking, we're always having fun. Nobody calls me chef back there. It's just sort of casual.
What do they call you? Do you have nicknames?
Oh, we all have nicknames.
Oooh, now we're getting to the good stuff. What's your nickname?
What does that mean?
[Laughs] Gorilla in Spanish.
Yeah, we try to keep it like that. We all generally like to hang out with each other. When people leave, like if one of the line cooks quits, we try to go out and have a party, and say thanks for working here.
That's nice to hear. Especially because there's so much turnover in restaurants.
Once you're part of the gang, you're part of the gang.
What's the craziest thing that's ever happened back there?
A couple years ago, our hood stopped working and the Ansul system (fire suppression system) went off. It was probably about 3 p.m.
The sprinkler went off? Did everything get soaked?
Yeah, the sprinkler in the kitchen went off. Everything we'd already prepped had to be thrown away, and we had to start from scratch. We only had about two hours until we were supposed to open.
How long does it usually take you to prep?
Ugh. Did you think about closing for the night?
We didn't just want to call everybody who had a reservation and say, "Sorry about that--we had an accident in the kitchen." Everyone was mad and upset, but what are you going to do? All you can do is laugh it off and say, "Well, this is garbage, let's start over."
Let's talk food. What are some of the hidden gems on the menu--things that the rest of us tend to overlook?
Duck Pâté Bánh Mì
The Duck Pâté Bánh Mì is great. Not too many people know what a bánh mì is--it's a sandwich. There aren't a lot of people that order it, but it's really good. "
How do you prepare it?
We toast a baguette, then it's dressed with aioli and a fish sauce/soy sauce blend. There's a coleslaw of julienned carrots, Napa cabbage, some serrano chilies, and shallots. And the coleslaw is tossed with rice wine vinegar and sugar. Then for the pâté itself, it's just duck livers, shallots, cream, and a little Madeira.
Do you blend the pâté really finely?
Yeah, we grind the duck livers and put them in a food processor to chop them up even more. Then it goes through a strainer to give it a nice smooth consistency.
It sounds good. Now I'm going to have to try it. What about some of our favorites--like the Stringozzi with Lamb Sugo. Yummmm... How do you make that?
It starts with lamb shoulder that's cut into cubes. We brown that off, then add onions, garlic, oregano, and chopped tomatoes. That stews together for about three hours at a really low temperature. And we stir it frequently. It gets a run through the food mill to break up the lamb shoulder, and then it's tossed with the stringozzi and we sprinkle some parmesan on top. I feel like I'm giving away all of our secrets!
It's pretty straightforward, huh?
There's no smoke and mirrors. It's simple stuff, but it's great.
What about the gnocchi--is there anything fancy to that?
It's a plate of fried gnocchi. Gnocchi is just potatoes, eggs, salt, and flour. You roast off the potatoes, scoop out the insides, run it all through the food mill twice so you get a nice, fine grind. Then you mix that with the eggs, flour, salt, and make the pasta. They're sauteed in a nonstick pan with a little butter.
And when they're done, they get a little salt and fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Since it's so basic, it goes back to the execution again. If you execute it poorly, it doesn't taste the same.
I'm starting to see a theme with you. "Do it well" and "execute" are your mantras.
[Smiles] Seems simple.
What if you weren't cooking? What else would you be doing?
[Pauses] I don't know, I've never really thought about it. I've always liked cooking and really wanted to keep going with it.
That's actually really cool. It means you found your thing early.
Honestly, I don't know what else I'd be doing. I don't think sales are for me. I don't really fit into the 9 to 5 corporate world. I'm very passionate about what I do. I just work as hard as I possibly can at it. Hopefully it goes well because I know I'm going to be cooking for a while.
That's good news because we like your food!