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All About Eggs - Cooking With the Pros

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All About Eggs

Cooking With The Pros

By Ellen R. Shapiro

On Saturday, Valentine's Day 2004, Fat Guy and I spent the morning at New York's famous Tavern On The Green restaurant observing the brunch shift. There were 600 brunch reservations at Tavern that day, and 2500 dinner reservations. It's a big restaurant.

Fat Guy was there to meet Tavern's executive chef, John M. Milito, and to do broad research for his book about what goes on behind the scenes at restaurants. He also asked me to come along to document the way the Tavern kitchen produces eggs for so many customers.

~~~

We begin early, in one of the prep areas, where we are placed under the guidance of Fernando, the sous-chef in charge of, among other things, eggs. Fernando is, in restaurant parlance, the "egg man." But of course he is not just any egg man. He is the egg man at one of the world's largest and best known restaurants, and he has been with Tavern for 21 years. No slouch is he when it comes to eggs.

In Fat Guy's eGullet Culinary Institute (eGCI) class on poaching eggs, a number of tricks were covered all with the goal of improving your chances of getting well-formed poached eggs. Tavern uses a much different approach: there are very few tricks employed, and the main way they get good poached eggs is by throwing out all the bad ones. In the production setting of Tavern, where Fernando's time is far more valuable than an extra carton of eggs, there isn't time for pricking, par-cooking, shaping, swirling, or anything of the sort.

Fernando explains to Fat Guy the simple steps they use in poaching eggs at Tavern: 1) the freshest eggs available, 2) a large (to say the least -- this was like poaching eggs in a Jacuzzi) water bath set at a slow simmer, 3) a healthy amount of white vinegar in the water, and 4) throw out all the bad ones.

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The basic theory, according to Fernando: "The yolks, they try to rise. The whites, they try to sink. When the egg goes in, if the white wraps around the yolk the yolk brings it back to the top and it's a good egg, round with a tail. If the white doesn't wrap around the yolk, either the yolk pops away or you make a fried egg on the bottom." Fernando repeatedly illustrates with his hands how the yolk and white need to come together just so.

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And so we go off to poach eggs. Tavern uses Grade AA Extra Large eggs and they come by the case. Each case contains 30 dozen eggs -- 360 eggs in 12 trays of 30 eggs each. Fernando estimates that today the restaurant will use 7 cases for the brunch service. "On the busiest day," he says, "I might open 15 cases. Or more."

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The water bath in which the eggs are poached is about the size of the tubs they use at pet salons to bathe large-breed dogs. It is filled with water and vinegar and brought to a simmer.

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Fernando works with 60 eggs at a time. He places 2 trays (30 eggs each) next to the water bath. The selection process begins at this point, as he discards any obviously damaged eggs. He then proceeds to crack the rest into the water bath with staggering speed, one hand feeding the eggs to the other hand as he cracks the eggs one-handed directly into the water bath. Fat Guy clocks him at 26 seconds for a tray. "If I go slow," Fernando says, "half the eggs cook before the other half are in." But at +/- 13 seconds there is no worry of great variance. Fernando informally separates tray 1 from tray 2 by working at both ends of the water bath.

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In order to avoid damage to the eggs as they enter the water, he cracks them very close to the water's surface.

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He then pulls away swiftly, a motion that helps the egg form its shape: a sphere with a tail of whites.

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At this point he begins culling the worst of the eggs, throwing them into the large garbage pail he keeps next to the poaching station for this purpose. There are a lot of eggs that break up or otherwise don't meet the standard.

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But most of them do come out right.

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The eggs will poach for around 3.5 minutes, Fernando says, and Fat Guy hits his stopwatch. Fernando, amazingly, wanders off to do something else: he is also preparing lamb shanks for the dinner service. I had wondered earlier why there was a case of lamb shanks sitting on top of each two cases of eggs in the prep kitchen.

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Fernando manages to get an entire tub full of lamb shanks into another gigantic bath-like contraption in less than the time it takes the eggs to poach.

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He has never used a timer for poaching eggs, but it is almost exactly at the 3 minute mark that he wanders back over to the poaching station and tests an egg. He also makes Fat Guy press on the egg to see the right texture of a correctly poached egg.

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It is now almost exactly 3.5 minutes into the poaching process, and he rapidly removes all the eggs with a wire mesh scoop and plunges them into tub of ice water. There are still a lot of imperfect eggs, even though at every stage of the process Fernando has discarded several flawed ones.

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Fernando repeats this 60-egg poach several times, and also continues to multitask with the lamb shanks. It only takes him about a half an hour to poach several hundred eggs and finish browning the lamb shanks (later they will be braised in veal stock and red wine, this liquid will form the basis of the sauce, and they will be plated with creamy polenta).

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One of Fernando's cooks then goes through the poached eggs that are sitting in the ice water and selects only the ones that are up to standard. Each of them has a tail of whites hanging off the spherical part of the egg. The assistant plucks these tails off by hand and lays the eggs in stainless trays, which are then covered and stacked.

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Poaching is not the only use of eggs at Tavern, needless to say. There are scrambled eggs, par-cooked in a gigantic cauldron. There are crab cakes, which contain -- in addition to jumbo lump crab meat, shredded crab meat, scallions, and seasonings -- eggs in two forms: whole beaten eggs, and a little mayonnaise. For Valentine's dinner, they are making heart-shaped mini crab cakes (for brunch, they are making larger round ones). There is French toast, par-cooked and heated to order at service. There is a "frittata" (a hybrid of an omelette and a frittata really) on the menu, and the eggs for that are cracked in advance. And of course when poached eggs are served they are most commonly made into eggs Benedict ("eggs Benny" in kitchen-speak) and that requires Hollandaise. In this case, about 300 eggs worth of it.

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There are so many things going on in the prep areas at the same time. Over in an adjacent room, they're washing spinach. The bags of spinach are dumped into the largest commercial sink I've ever seen. They are then moved around with a shovel, and removed with a big strainer into one of the greatest kitchen tools in the world: the Salad Ace electric salad spinner-dryer. I want one!

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I also notice a garbage-pail full of peeled potatoes. Hmm. Maybe there will be French fries.

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Fernando and his crew will now turn their attentions fully to dinner prep. So it's time for us to transfer the breakfast materials to the main kitchen, and for brunch service to begin.

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Frank is in charge of the station that handles poached eggs, crab cakes, frittatas and several other items. His first words to me are, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" And it turns out he does: 10 years ago, Frank was the counter-man at Canard & Co., the deli-grocery around the corner from my apartment. I used to buy coffee from him every day. He has been at Tavern for the past 6 years.

The orders come in on a little computer printer and the crew (Frank has two other cooks in his station, and there's also a roving sous-chef who checks in from time to time) starts to produce.

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Frank has done some eggs Benny prep of his own: while Fernando was actually poaching the eggs, Frank was toasting English muffins and laying out slices of ham. Another cook -- a man from Bangladesh who has done it since 1984 -- made the Hollandaise. Everything is laid out at Frank's station and shortly before the first orders come in, hot water is added to a tray of poached eggs to bring them up to a warm temperature.

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Frank quickly assembles the orders as they come in. He puts each plate under a broiler briefly to heat the muffin and give the ham (which is already cooked) a little color. He then adds the eggs, sauce, and garnish, and places the eggs on the "pass" where they are given a final sprinkling of herbs. A lid is then placed on the plate to keep it warm as a runner carries it down the long hallways and through the sprawling premises to its final destination.

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The end result is a great plate of eggs Benny, with the poached eggs nicely liquid at the center. Fat Guy, who has a knack for reappearing whenever there is something to eat, enjoys the snack greatly.

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Farther along the line, another cook is preparing the day's special frittata. These are cooked to order, and are a bit like omelettes but are not folded. The frittata-du-jour is crabmeat, potato, and asparagus, topped with cheddar. The cook begins with the fillings in a small skillet, adds an egg mixture, and uses a combination of shaking, tossing, and a rubber spatula to get the eggs into an almost-done state, at which point he sprinkles cheddar on top and places it under a broiler to finish and fluff a bit.

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The French toast and scrambled egg stations are also cranking.

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I was wondering what had happened to all that spinach, and it turns out that on another station it is being used as a garnish for two of the more lunch-like brunch dishes: salmon and chicken.

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And I finally get my French fries, which by the way are totally outstanding: cut fresh and fried twice.

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On the way out, I check in with Fernando's crew in the prep kitchen. They're boiling up some special Valentine's Day ravioli. Fernando is happy: he's going on vacation tomorrow.

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Happy Valentine's Day, everyone.

~~~

You may ask questions here.

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