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.
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