Every cook in the kitchen at Blackbird is in the fiercest competition of their lives—against themselves.
“The cooks that come in here are very hungry,” executive chef Ryan Pfeiffer comments. “There is a large format of fundamental knowledge with an opportunity to put food on the menu at this restaurant. These competitions give us a sound mentality of trust in knowing that the food will be always be good.”
Each week, Chef Pfeiffer challenges one cook from his team to perfect a technique-driven recipe and then spin it into a new dish.
“We started off with a couple of different cookbooks…Bocuse…Robuchon…” Chef Pfeiffer runs through a mental list. “I’d pick out certain recipes where I thought the techniques were relevant and important. It’s going back to Culinary 101…the perfect braise…an oyster soufflé...The challenge is to cook the dish perfectly and then come up with a sauce and garnish based on technique and timing. This balances the process of learning technique while thinking for themselves.”
And after that?
“Utilize the techniques and come up with something brand new. Just one perfect dish. And then teach it to everyone else.”
Pfeiffer is a traditionalist in that he believes that patience, mise en place, and technique are must-haves in the kitchen.
“These are things that get lost in the culinary world but these are also the things that teach you. You’re only going to learn from your failures. You can’t be afraid to screw up.”
It’s not just the cookbook techniques that Pfeiffer is interested in…far from it, in fact. “Whether it’s a forgotten technique or a new one or something that you thought of and want to see if it works, let’s do it.”
On a recent trip to Napa Valley, Ryan was inspired by a dish that was a bird completely baked whole in bread—poulet cuit à la brioche. Upon his return, he immediately tasked one of his sous chefs to figure out the recipe. “I gave him a case of chickens and after a week he produced the perfect buttery brioche steamed chicken. The brioche tasted like chicken and the chicken was buttery like bread.”
The next challenge is to learn and teach the humane way to kill a fish (severe its nervous system so that it doesn’t know it’s dead and rigor mortis takes longer to set in), keeping it fresher and being more responsible with product in the kitchen.
While to some the idea of taken on immense culinary challenges may seem like a source of stress, particularly when already working at a fast-paced Michelin-starred kitchen, the cooks at Blackbird thrive on it.
“It’s not just the excitement for the person who has finally figured something difficult out. It’s the excitement that everyone feels knowing they might be next to get a task. It takes the cooks back to the beginning and out of the mundane ‘going through the motions’ idea. We’re trying to get rid of tunnel vision here.”
Chef Pfeiffer swells with pride as he describes his team.
“If you think about it, they’re really excited to do more work. They’re excited to be challenged in their cooking. When you work 10 hour shifts at least four days a week and then voluntarily come in on your day off because you want to figure this out in your free time, it reflects a great attitude and a great morale in the kitchen.”
Although the cooks are essentially only competing against themselves and collaborating on the next big challenge, Chef Pfeiffer still prefers to refer to the process as a competition.
“In my own mind, competition is very taboo,” Pfeiffer says pensively. “How I looked at competition when I was younger is very different than how I look at it now. We’re not trying to have Battle Royale here at Blackbird. We’re not fostering a system of enemies. We’re fostering a system of family. We want everyone to be on the sidelines, rooting for the person performing because we’re all on the same team. We see each other more than we see our own families…this helps to cultivate deeper relationships, especially in this cut-throat industry.”
There’s only one mantra to this evolved competition at Blackbird: When you come in, you hang up your jacket and your ego along with it.”
While Chef Pfeiffer mans the ship as captain, he participates in everything the kitchen does. “There has to be a delegation because things need to run perfectly for service,” he articulates his position. “But if someone has a better or more effective way to get to our correct end product, I will take it. It’s hard to find the time to collaborate with everybody but we are still in the infant stages of our growth as a team.”
As the competition heats up, there is another set of winners—the diners. While Blackbird’s lunch menu remains bistro-like (quick, enjoyable, affordable), dinner is an opportunity for the chefs to come together and orchestrate a technically perfect and imaginative culinary experience.
“We’re able to cultivate this team relationship while still staying busy. To do that after 20 years of being open is a blessing. It’s not easy to stay relevant.”
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