First in an occasional series.
At CityZen, chefs cook up sweet moves
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.
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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.