How does one make risotto nero? It depends on where it is being made. Cooking risotto nero can either be done in an hour holding a glass of wine, or it can take many days, as part of a violent battle. Cooking it in a restaurant makes it akin to waging war.
We know very little about each other’s professions. And why should we know more? We are, naturally, more interested in ourselves than in others. Some of us, however, have created a little soapbox to speak from. Here is that soapbox, and this is that speech. It is the speech that answers what it takes to make very simple, good food for restaurant patrons. It takes much, much more than what most people think. Any person who actually cooks, and by this we mean a person who takes in hand stuff that grows, walks, swims and flies, knows that to produce a plate of food which is good, even if it has seemingly only one thing on it, often requires many steps. Sometimes, but not always, it also requires a lot of time. But to make good food in a restaurant is never a case of combining pre-existing ready-made components in novel, or not novel, ways. Good food does not manifest from dabs of this, slices of those or splashes of that unless the dabs, slices and splashes were first made under a very watchful eye.
These steps include finding the raw ingredients. Thus, much time is spent holding a phone with a chin speaking to the butcher, the baker, farmers and grocers whilst bringing to the boil two or three stocks. Lists, which have been written at the end of the previous night’s service, over a glass of wine while high on adrenaline, are now studied and soberly executed. These lists are based on what has been used up and needs to be replaced – and this depends also on what will change on the menu that day and what remains the same. So the list is not simply a ‘stock’ take, it involves menu planning at the same time.
Any restaurant which actually engages real cooking, and The Glenwood Restaurant is sadly one of only a few in Durban, will have such lists. At The Glenwood Restaurant this includes instructions to make certain types of pasta doughs – things like herb tagliatelle, linguini, mezzaluna – butter, ricotta, tart pastries, butchering, poaching and reducing. Whilst three people attend to these lists as from 8 am, the head chef, if he is also the owner, will meet with managers, work out the cost of goods, determine the margins, look for better suppliers of better ingredients and fire bad ones. In the afternoons, wines must be tasted, wine lists updated to remain in keeping with the menu and the general ethos of the particular restaurant. This includes the decisions which have been made around the pricing of items on the menu. In short, a day running and cooking for even a small restaurant, which offers a certain type of menu, is a fourteen hour non-stop affair, if one is lucky.
This is certainly not a complaint. This type of work is self-inflicted, of course. And it is chosen as an occupation by people of a certain type. Given the chances of receiving criticism on a daily basis, because food and eating is a very emotional thing for most of us, often whilst under pressure and barking orders at others, makes for a nerve wracking work day. Like actors, cooks, have tomatoes thrown at them. As they should have. No, kitchens are not pretty. They are stages, bared to scrutiny. One either becomes an actor, soldier or a cook. Turning on the first flames and sharpening your knives when the sun has just risen, so as to feed people when the sun sets, is a case of ‘unto the breach, once more’. And the battle is won in systematic layers; each, time consuming and, all, indispensable. That is how one makes risotto nero with squid tentacles and mussels. It has very little to do with the tentacles and mussels, except that someone must be certain that they are very, very fresh. But it really starts early in the morning with a good stock and ends, before plating, with copious amounts of hand-made butter.
The Glenwood Restaurant now serves lunch all week, from 12 am to 3 pm, in the form of a harvest table. We are making beautiful salads, tarts and warm dishes. You may help yourself to what you want. Take-aways are possible. Weekend lunches, and all dinners (Wednesday to Saturday) remain menu based, as they always have been.
The Glenwood Bakery now serves breakfast all day.