It's 4:45 p.m. in the kitchen of Campanile, and workers are hurrying back and forth with the urgency of a submarine crew on alert. According to a list posted above the pick-up counter, 96 guests are expected within a two-hour stretch this evening, and the cooks are busy preparing for the rush.
"Behind you, 'scuse me, lobster tails coming through," someone calls out, and squeezes past, carrying a heavy pot.
Chef Mark Peel shakes his head. "When I designed the kitchen nine years ago, I made sure the aisles were wide. They don't seem very wide now."
Peel and his wife Nancy Silverton opened the La Brea Avenue restaurant in 1989 and since then it has come to be known as one of L.A.'s premier eateries. Peel orchestrates everything except the desserts, which are created by Silverton.
Restaurant kitchens tend to be chaotic affairs, and Campanile's is no exception. Peel recently took a reporter through the process, beginning with the late-afternoon preparation of an antipasto dish, accompanied by a dollop of Moroccan pesto salad.
Peel has opted to make the pesto salad himself, so at 4:45 p.m. when the main dining area is empty except for a lone worker mopping the Mexican tile floor he is in the kitchen with a giant-sized mortar and pestle, grinding whole cloves of garlic by hand.
"Feel the texture of this bowl," says Peel. "It's pure, thick, unglazed porcelain. We had to order this from England."
Paste, pesto and pestle come from the same linguistic root, he points out. "I'm not using a blender because blenders heat and oxydize food, and turn garlic bitter," he explains.
Nearby, Peel's next-in-command, sous chef Annie Miler, has just learned that the slicer went unwashed. "This has to be done every day. Todos los dios," she says to the dishwasher, Rudolfo Lopez, who wears a baseball cap and pants printed with red peppers. "Unplug it first. Wash this part. Mira. That thing'll go in the dishwasher," she says, demonstrating.
While French kitchens are very hierarchical, Campanile's is more relaxed, with six cooks staffing stations on the dinner line. They face the main dining area through a pick-up counter. Each cook handles a different piece of the menu. All wear earth-toned caps like Peel's, and all are well educated one went to Amherst, another to Harvard.
In the back part of the kitchen, butcher Miguel Zavalla is slicing homemade gravlax for tomorrow's bagels-and-cream-cheese brunch. Another worker chops vegetables.
Peel runs out to his wife's flatbed Dodge Ram to retrieve cedar he bought at a lumber yard for smoking tonight's salmon and sturgeon, and then proceeds to chop the cooked mizuna, a spinach-like ingredient in the Moroccan pesto.
"There are no secrets to cooking," he says, using his apron to sweep bits of mizuna off the chopping board. "But there are a couple of things that make it extremely difficult for me to cook at home. One: I have to wash the dishes. Two: I have to clean the floors."
Peel looks down at his bowl of mizuna. "I'm supposed to sautee this a little more," he says. "I'm not sure I want to." He samples it. "No, no, I don't want to." He rubs his chin. "Ah, I better do it. Where's my olive oil?"
Peel started his restaurant career as a busboy while attending college, but retreated to the kitchen after knocking over a vase of flowers on one table, and then busing clean plates and fresh bread from another.
"The people sat down, and the dumb busboy cleared their table," Peel recalls. "I lasted about four days and fled back into the kitchen."
In 1975, eight months after Wolfgang Puck became head chef at Ma Maison, Peel signed on as the "vegetable boy." Peel was 20 years old at the time. He worked at Ma Maison for three and a half years, and then worked at Michael's, where he met and courted Silverton. The couple started working for Puck at Spago in 1982.
Back at Campanile, the cooks are now busy preparing sauces and pastas, and grilling baby eggplant and carrots. Miler is frying potato pancakes in duck fat, rendered from leftover skin. "Duck fat is rich, and more flavorful than oil," she says. "One of my favorite things are onions cooked in duck fat. Crispy little onion rings. They're addictive."
At 5:30 p.m. Peel leaves the kitchen to brief the waiters and busboys on the menu. The evening's fare changes night to night, according to Peel's whim and the palate of available fresh foods.
"Is the bass whole?" one waiter asks.
"Head, eyeballs, cheeks, tail, everything," Peel replies. "We only have eight of them. The peppers with the antipasto are pimentos Nancy picked up in Chino Farms. The potato pancakes are cooked in duck fat. Does anyone know about the cheese? Because I'm completely clueless."
As of 5:30, the restaurant is officially open for business, and Eric Kelly arrives, carrying a tray of baby cherry pies from Nancy Silverton's upstairs bakery. He makes several trips, first for the apple puff pastry, then for the chocolate tarts, which will be served with homemade toasted cocoa-bean-chip ice cream.
By 7:30 the kitchen is going full tilt. Someone has ordered wild salmon, so Miler lays a water-soaked cedar board on the grill, puts down a piece of salmon, and places a metal bowl face-down on top, to trap the smoke.
Next to her, James Faulkner is adding rosemary-skewered sweetbreads ("thymus glands from the neck of a cow," explains Peel) to a plate of fresh beluga lentils. Faulkner is in charge of timing the dishes, making sure that if a table orders a well-done steak and seared tuna, they are ready at the same time.
"Sara, fire me a steak fries, please," Faulker calls down the line to Sara Dickerman, who is working the cold appetizer and frying station.
Romi Kramer is sauteeing soft-shell crabs on the stove behind her. She plumps arugula on a plate and places hunks of grilled eggplant beside it, for the crisp polenta entr & #233;e. Tomas Martinez, one of several "expediters" who shuttle food to the tables, wipes the plate's rim with a towel before serving it.
In the kitchen's back area, baker Kelly is assembling the Panna Cotta, a sweet, custardy dessert on top of a flat pastry. "Your fork goes through the creamy center, and then there's the crunch of the pastry," Kelly says, garnishing the plate with plum compote and candied slivers of lemon and lime peel.
Peel, meanwhile, hauls a giant pot of boiling lobster stock, made from tonight's discarded lobster shells, off the stove. He gives it a few hard shakes to mix it, and then hauls it back up onto the burner.
"I have tennis elbow, but I've never played tennis in my life," Peel says of his tendonitis. Other cooks wear wrist braces to guard against carpal tunnel syndrome.
Peel's 15-year-old daughter, Vanessa Peel, arrives with the family's babysitter to pick up dinner for herself and her brother Ben, 13. "Daddy, can I have portobello mushrooms?" she asks.
"We're out of those," he says.
"Well, then any kind of mushrooms?"
Peel orders the mushrooms, along with two linguinis, and a side order of green beans.
"Ben is mister simplicity. Vanessa is miss picky," Peel says. "And Nancy doesn't eat bread. She lost a lot of weight recently by not eating starches. Isn't that ironic? Here she's a master bread baker, and she doesn't even eat bread."
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