Rockin’ the Dolly

Our children attend Mount Madonna School now, but for several years Julia and I homeschooled both Graydon and Lena. During that time, when he was ten and eleven, I took Graydon with me when I made my restaurant deliveries. Every Wednesday and Saturday I’d root him out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, and he’d ride up to the City with me. At each stop he’d jump out, help me unload the truck, keep the door open for me when I pushed the hand truck into the restaurant, shuttle some boxes inside behind me, and keep an eye on the street for the meter maids. When he got stronger I gave him a dolly to push too.

It didn’t take Graydon long to figure out that if he made eyes at the dessert chefs, they’d give him something to ward off hunger. His favorite was Michelle Polzin, a tall, striking, punky, tattooed, red-headed, cookie-baking rock & roller with cat’s eye glasses. She always talked to him, asked him questions, and gave him treats. Graydon chatted up the bar tenders too. “You want a cold one for the road?” they’d ask him as we were leaving.

“Yeah,” he’d reply. “I’ll take a limonata.”

People wonder how the kid grew so fast. I wish I could say it was the home-grown organic vegetables, but I suspect it was the lemon tart from Delfina on 18th Street, the cherry fool he knocked back at Range on Valencia, or the hand-rolled bread sticks he inhaled at Incanto on Church.

Graydon learned about food preparation in the restaurants, watching the crew downstairs at Kokkari Estiatorio butcher giant fish, for example, or checking out the guys unloading trucks in the streets of Chinatown at dawn wearing yellow raincoats with dead pigs draped over their shoulders. We were downstairs in a prep kitchen one day when a cook sparked two blowtorches, one in each hand, gunslinger style, and blasted away at a tray of corno di toro peppers until they were black and smoking. Graydon stopped pushing his hand truck to watch. Why didn’t his parents ever bust out the blow torches to make dinner?

“Hey, kid,” said the prep cook. “You can really rock that dolly!”

“Yeah,” Graydon replied. “I’m helping my papa. What are you doing?”

“Flaming off peppers.”

“Why?” Graydon asked.

“A pepper has a thick, waxy skin,” the cook explained, flicking off his torches. “So we burn them real fast with high heat, which lifts the skin and caramelizes the flesh.” He tossed the burned peppers into a large, stainless steel bowl. “After they cool, I’ll peel off the burned stuff.”

Graydon nodded attentively.

“You see all that juice that drips out of them?” asked the cook. “That’s nectar. Save it! A splash of that and your sauce kicks ass!”

Graydon peered into the bowl.

“I’d use mesquite,” the cook continued. “I like the way the smoke balances the sweetness, but pinche flojo over there is tying up the grill, so I ‘borrowed’ the dessert station’s blow torches and I’m getting’ the job done. Wanna try?

Graydon was intimidated by the blue flames, so he stepped back, but he kept watching. Knowing that he had an audience prompted the prep cook to put a little attitude into his roasting, but then attitude is never too far from the surface in a kitchen.

When Chris Cosentino, the chef at Incanto, an Italian restaurant and wine bar in Noe Valley, went up against the Rabelaisian “Molto” Mario Batali, of the famed Babbo Restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village, on the Food Network’s  Iron Chef show, there was an invitation-only screening party at a bar down in the Mission. Graydon wanted to go. It wasn’t exactly legal for me to take him, but the kid was being home-schooled and missing out on Social Studies Class, so some catching up was in order. “Stay cool,” I told him, “and try not to get in a fight.”

The Double Dutch was crammed and the monitors mounted high over the bar were already blaring by the time Graydon and I showed up. The theme was “Battle Garlic.” Chris had done the Iron Chef competition with two compadres, Jonnatan Leiva of Jack Falstaff Restaurant down in SOMA and Ravi Kapur from Boulevard on the Embarcadero, so the room was hopping with line cooks, prep cooks, sous chefs, garde mangers, and dishwashers from all three restaurants, plus their girl friends, boy friends, spouses and exes, half of whom also worked in restaurants. “This would be a bad night to eat out in San Francisco,” I told Graydon. “Half the talent in town is down here!” I got him a limonata.

On screen, Chris, Ravi, and Jonnatan hit the stage of Kitchen Stadium, and the crowd in the Double Dutch roared. “Molto” and his posse drew hoots. Actually, the cooks all dug Mario too, but you gotta go with the home-town talent, and besides, these were all working people who spend their days chopping, frying, boiling, grilling, reducing, blanching, and straining. They knew that if “Molto” was head chef at Babbo, Lupa, Esca, Carnevino, Casa Mono, Bar Jamon, etc, etc, etc, he’d already drifted off into rock star heaven. But the next day, when the beer buzz wore off, they’d all be back at their stations, getting it done, and so would Chris, Ravi, and Jonnatan. It wasn’t “Chris versus ‘Molto,’”or “Incanto versus Babbo,” it was “David versus Goliath.”

Chris led off with garlic crostino with rapini and ricotta. “If the contest were on this side of the world,” I told Graydon, “that would be our farm’s rapini.”

Sizzled diver scallop crudo with pickled garlic followed, and then Spaghetti alla chitarra with snails & garlic butter. But when Chris plated the squab with the claws still on, each foot clutching a roasted garlic clove, the crowd at the Double Dutch roared like English hooligans at a soccer game. Chris advised the judges to eat the bird’s brains by sucking them out through the beak. Graydon grinned widely and drained his limonata. But then the judges gave the match to Mario by two points¯ the contest having been decided by “plating,” of all things, and the crowd raged. “That’s bull$#*! Flavor rules!”

A prep cook turned to Graydon and I. “Chris outscored “Molto” on originality by five points,” he said. “That’s gotta hurt.” Clearly, if Chris had been judged by a jury of his peers he would have won, but no one ever said that the Iron Chef Program was run by the Department of Justice. Graydon was bummed, so I ordered him another limonata to wash away his sorrows.

School starts up again for Graydon pretty quick. He’s thirteen, so he’ll be learning about the Civil War and pre-algebra, and all that’s super important, I know. How much of his education he’ll remember past the tests is debatable, but I know he’ll never forget the savory education he got in the streets, the kitchens, and the bars of San Francisco when he was rockin’ the dolly for the family farm.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Graydon circa 2005 or 2006 delivering to Quince in San Francisco (photo is also above

Graydon Today, next to the fridge in our kitchen (sorry we didn’t get a better photo, he’s difficult to pin down!  fyi: on the messy fridge includes 3 letters: LNF: that stands for Life’s Not Fair, and ‘cat box’ is part of our chore system.)

Restaurants we sell Mariquita and High Ground produce to twice a week

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