The Kitchen Insider series gives Heavy Table readers a peek at the personality and processes of well-known kitchens around town.
Towering dishes rich in color, texture, and bold flavor are placed on the counter, ready to be finished and delivered to the awaiting diner. These minor masterpieces created by the 20.21 kitchen staff require focused concentration and a quick, steady hand. But in this open kitchen amidst the dinner rush, a quiet work environment is not an option.
The restaurant’s noisy soundtrack is a melody of clinking glasses and dining room chatter mixed with the sounds of the kitchen — the printing of orders onto receipt tape and the frequent exclamation of “Behind!” being called out to avoid collisions. Adding to the mix, many of the staff are subbing for the regular dinner crew which creates a slight off-beat tune to the kitchen’s regular rhythm.
Orders come in rapidly, called out by the expediter to the staff behind the counter. Corresponding ingredients are immediately pulled from the plethora of prep containers of vegetables and lowboys of raw proteins, where they sit on round dishes awaiting instructions to continue with the order. But there’s no time to stand around and wait for the word; scallops are searing on the stove and several plates need finishing before that prep dish of raw ingredients will be fired.
The scallop pad thai dish is plated and passed to the window, where the plate’s edges will be wiped perfectly clean and the finishing garnishes will be added; in this case bean sprouts add a bit of crunch and mint, the final flourish of color and flavor. Yet another order of pot stickers comes through — a very popular item tonight — the previously prepped appetizers go directly from the lowboy into a skillet to caramelize and are finished quickly with a tangy dipping sauce and handful of greens.
The beauty of 20.21’s dishes lies in the details — layer upon layer of flavors topped with the perfect combination of garnishes that make them appealing to both the tastebuds and the eyes. While the home cook may be satisfied with one sauce and perhaps a sprinkle of chopped parsley or chiffonade of basil, 20.21 knows better and plays up sauce and garnish combinations that add sweet to the spicy and crunch to the smooth. Each layer is another step in the cooking and presentation processes, but the time is worth the effort for such elegantly balanced food.
Despite the kitchen bustle, Executive Chef Asher Miller (above) makes time to work with individual cooks, showing a technique here or consulting on an order there, and to answer the many questions that this writer continually asks… all the while keeping track of seafood dishes he’s cooking and an eye on his staff. He plates a dish, as beautiful as the rest, and quickly moves onto the next task without skipping a beat.