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At CityZen, chefs cook up sweet moves

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First in an occasional series.

Great kitchens match drill-field precision with gestural art. The best cooks possess a soldier’s obedience and a dancer’s grace, transcending the dangers with meditative beauty.

“I fell in love with Eric when I saw him move in the kitchen,” confesses his wife, Celia Laurent-Ziebold. She met CityZen chef Eric Ziebold when he was cooking at the renowned French Laundry.

“I saw this man moving around very precisely in a very tight space, and everyone around him was well orchestrated, with very natural movements,” says Laurent-Ziebold. “I thought it was beautiful.”

Those reality-TV chef shows may have you thinking that professional cooking is all about crazy creativity with vinegars and organ meats. Or that it’s a matter of egos, screaming and jungle treks in search of Amazonian rodents. But that’s the show-biz side, the exotic R&D.

What matters in a pro kitchen: instant reaction, mindless repetition and crisp, efficient maneuvers. Restaurants run on the French “kitchen brigade” system, modeled after a military hierarchy more than a century ago. There’s the chef, a couple of lieutenants (the sous-chefs), and a platoon of line cooks —the kitchen infantry — manning stations assigned by menu category: appetizers, fish, meat and so on.

It has to be this way. The restaurant kitchen is a highly physical place, and if the saucier lunging toward the stove collides with the meat cook slinging plated quail toward the waiters, there will be a meltdown. Chefs, like generals, know they have two choices: discipline or chaos.

Watch the cook staff at the height of dinner service — the open-kitchen trend has put them increasingly on view — and you’ll see an intricate ballet. A refined body awareness and familiarity allows these tattooed Baryshnikovs to dance silently around one another between flashing knives and a stove at full flame.

“There’s a kind of wonderful grace that only happens when people are really good at what they do, and they adjust to each other’s motions,” says Ruth Reichl, former editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.

Reichl was also once a professional cook, and recalls the kinetic thrill of working in a well-synchronized kitchen. “We were so attuned to each other,” she says. “There’s a kind of joy in that, a feeling that you’re all breathing together. We didn’t have a single wasted motion.”

Breathing together. That is exactly how dancers describe what it takes for the most focused, interwoven ensemble works to jell. It’s as if a web of concentration and sensory awareness binds them together — just as it binds an expert kitchen staff at the peak of service.

You can see this grace under fire at CityZen, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest Washington. On a recent Saturday night, alongside the risotto and the rib-eye, Ziebold is serving up a quiet show of elegant efficiency.

* * *

Before coming to Washington in 2004, Ziebold, 40, logged eight years at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., one of those revered foodie meccas that is spoken of in sighs. Ziebold held the top job of chef de cuisine there, and also helped Keller open Per Se in New York, where Keller’s attention to detail was such that he brought in a French baroque dance specialist to train the waiters in moving with grace.

Ziebold was known for his stern, contained authority and for working insane hours seven days a week. He was also known for his moves.

Wearing a starched white chef’s coat with his initials monogrammed by the collar, he could just as well have medals pinned across his chest. Going by his trim physique and crisp appearance, this is a man steeped in discipline. He has an easy smile and a friendly, boyish face, but something in his chiseled cheekbones and the set of his jaw brings to mind the solemn, don’t-mess-with-me intensity of Lance Armstrong.

Ziebold, winner of a 2008 James Beard award, controls not only his kitchen, but also his guests. He offers a choice of three multi-course menus, but nothing a la carte. In this way, Ziebold can choreograph the evening like he’s putting together a ballet program.

“I’ve predetermined the workload for everybody,” he says.

His staff will produce perhaps 1,000 plates a night, but Ziebold has planned the menus so the preparation is evenly distributed among his cooks, there’s plenty of variety, and diners receive each course at a controlled, steady pace.

“I keep them focused on the repetition,” he says, nodding toward the line cooks as if he’s speaking of the corps de ballet. “Me and the sous-chefs, we’ll do the one-offs.”

The proof of this comes at 5:30, as the first guests are shown to their tables.

Show time.

In the kitchen, eight cooks are squeezed together like a submarine crew. Still, they swivel with ease from slicing to stirring, swinging stockpots onto burners, bending down to haul meat out of the lowboy fridge and springing back up to toss it into a pan.

Ryan Zimmerman fielding a grounder and firing it to first base has nothing on these toqued commandos, who glide through the same motions again and again. They’re a hairbreadth from ruin, mere seconds away from scorched shoat, lost lamb, overdone duck. All that separates them from expensive errors and trips to the hospital is timing, rehearsal and reflexive grace.

Two sous-chefs oversee the meat and fish orders: bearded, ponytailed Michael Malyniwsky and tall, slender Kerwin Tugas, who slips like an eel between the other cooks. Mike O’Brien, the meat cook, is the one with fingers full of bandages. The workhorses are the appetizer guys: Aleksandr Felickson, who assembles the cold plates of pickled shad or pink sashimi with a jeweler’s precision, and gangly Alex Brown, a one-man band of pots, whisks, spoons and saucepans, who makes the hot starters — the soft-boiled egg with gourmet scrapple and gravy, the risotto, the soup.

Tickets roll out of a machine on the counter. Ziebold tears them off and calls out the orders. He has a calm, smooth way of moving, no rushing, no lurching. He wields a long spatula like a conductor’s baton.

“Three egg, three tartare!”

Steam is rising from the saucepans. Felickson has a pot in each hand, makes a wide circle around Ziebold, who waits a beat to let him pass, then swings around to the counter.

“Hiramasa, pirogi!” calls Ziebold. With a sweep of his arm, Andy Hsu, the canape maker, whisks a pan of pastry beggar’s purses out of the way before Felickson sets down an order of scallops.

Back at his stove, Brown has a bottle of oil in one hand and a saucepan in the other; he shakes, pours and sets the bottle on the shelf behind him without a glance. Grabs another pan, stirs it, tastes it, sets it back on the flame and swipes the counter. In a chain of swift, blurred motions, he’s swirling risotto, sauteing mushroom sauce and heating up the cabbage soup. Like a shark, he never stops moving, and never loses his quizzical squint.

“Two tartare, one risotto!” Brown pirouettes with a stack of pots in his hands, grabbing them from the window into the dish room and spinning back to the stove. He moves with brisk economy, just a few strides in any direction. He slides a pan of bacon-wrapped quail on the counter just before Ziebold turns to grab it.

A party of 10 is seated at the table closest to the kitchen, which is open to part of the dining room. Ziebold sizes them up as a rowdy bunch and warns of the noise to come. He doesn’t like noise. It’s a distraction for the cooks.

“You should be able to tell how hot your saute pan is by the noise it’s making,” he says.

There’s a flash of light, signaling another thing that bothers him: Guests at a nearby table are taking pictures of one another.

“This is where we get beat up,” he sighs, seeing a snag in the perfect timing of that group’s next course, because he has trained the waiters not to serve unless everyone is seated. “There’s only so much you can rehearse. I don’t have control over everything.”

Felickson is slicing sashimi for the 10-top, as the big table is known, drawing his blade crisply across the slab of rosy fish like a confident barber with his razor on a pulsing neck. Hsu spoons out citrus salad for the beggar’s purse canape; Ziebold swoops in to add a dose of horseradish cream.

Steps away, in the candlelit dining room, elegant body language is everywhere — in the way lanky sommelier Andrew Myers glides tableside the instant the waiter has left, to pour the Barolo without further interrupting the guests. Ask for the powder room and a waiter will lead you there with a kind of sideways crab walk, so as not to turn her back on you. With a flourish of her arms, she’ll land you right at the door.

8:00. The kitchen sings with activity. Over at the fish and meat station, Tugas threads his way through the channel between O’Brien and Malyniwsky’s backsides. He floats with a kind of weightlessness, balanced and controlled. Doesn’t touch anything as he goes by, agile as a cat, darting back to his station. He spins on one foot to reach around the other men for a pan. Slips between the two cooks before the gap closes.

He has worked with Ziebold for seven years, drawn here from his native Hawaii by the chef’s reputation. Ask him about the worst calamity he’s ever witnessed in the kitchen, and he thinks a minute.

“It’s when you just stand there,” he says, naming the torpor of a slow night as the ultimate misfortune. “You want that energy.”

They’re all adrenaline junkies, these aproned aces. They thrive on the buzz. Brown jolts his saute pan with a hiccuping motion, flip flip flip. Reaching for a pile of shiitake to crown his veal tartare, Felickson slides like an ice skater, launching himself from one counter to the other with a strong pushoff his right leg and a big lunge on the left.

There’s a pas de trois going on at the meat station: One cook spoons on the sauce, another deposits slices of beef. Tugas lays on onion circles and performs microsurgery with tiny scissors.

“It’s like Chef says, ‘There’s no perfection, it’s the pursuit of perfection,’ ” Tugas says. “So it’s just repetition, repetition, repetition.”

* * *

Toward midnight, as the dining room empties, the cooks turn to wiping off their counters and gulping water from plastic deli containers. Ziebold, looking as fresh as the minute service started, heads over to the bar to chat with Myers as he polishes wineglasses. The chef starts to talk about how he got swept into cooking.

Scrapple and red-eye gravy come out of Ziebold’s kitchen because they’re fixed in his emotional root system. He grew up in Ames, Iowa, where his father worked at a newspaper and his mother was a teacher. After the 3 o’clock bell, she went home to cook dinner, served promptly at 6. “God help you if you showed up late,” he says.

Her cooking was the original slow food: She did her own canning and her own corned beef, brining it in the root cellar near the shelves of Mason jars.

Now Ziebold is especially proud of his corned beef tongue, a reference point to his past. “Some people are looking for blow-my-mind cooking,” he says. “Some people are looking for the emotional tie. That’s what inspires me.”

Memory is a large part of his arsenal, and so is longing. Eating became a highly charged event as another part of Iowa culture formed him: wrestling. Ziebold wrestled in junior high and high school, making the state team and earning a college scholarship. Cutting weight was as much a part of the sport as grueling workouts.

Food cravings haunted him. With his teammates he’d “walk around the grocery store saying, ‘After the weigh-in I’m gonna have that and that and that,’ ” he recalls. He’d come home from practice so weak he’d be shaking.

After high school, he was burned out. Instead of taking the wrestling scholarship, he headed to culinary school, where he could indulge his food fantasies. At 5-foot-9 — and with a father over 6 feet tall — Ziebold believes the years of food deprivation stunted his growth. The sport left its mark on him in other ways, too. You see it in his intensity, focus and militaristic discipline.

And you see it in his moves. The athlete’s grace remains in his capacity for endurance and consistency, his easy pivot from counter to counter, his confident legato in the midst of the hustle.

And his food? Put it this way: Let’s say Coco Chanel distilled eau de cabbage and whisked it into the steam rising from a hot bath. That’s his puree of savoy cabbage soup, a miraculous froth that makes you feel weightless as you sip it. And — on the subject of emotional ties — if, like me, you’ve ever ventured into the countryside outside Moscow to eat blintzes and sour cream served by a fat babushka in a faded dress, then the Kendall Farms creme fraiche atop Ziebold’s roasted brussels-sprout pirogi will send you back. Time travel on a plate.

The beauty of the dishes, the flavors that touch the heart — it all starts with what lives in the minds and muscles of the chef. The hungers, the memories, the appetite for labor. Add the grace of the kitchen, and what ends up on your fork is the outcome of a string of sweet moves. From the cooks’ bodies to yours.

© The Washington Post Company