Pasta My Prime

September 28, 2014 · 2 comments

Pasta Flyer

I‘m something of a Kickstarter junkie. I’ve backed projects as diverse as interacive fiction games, immersion circulators, titanium collar stays, graphic novels, music, and more. When I saw the campaign for Pasta Flyer, I practically screamed SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! How could I not contribute? I would get a chance to work with chef Mark Ladner of New York’s Del Posto restaurant (part of the Batali/Bastianich empire), work on a food truck, and determine once and for all if it was possible for gluten-free pasta to not be an abomination. And, of course, I would get to work in a restaurant-like setting, even if only for a few hours.

My education began on Tuesday in the kitchen of Alden & Harlow in Harvard Square, where prep started at 8 AM. We were sharing the space with A&H’s morning crew.

Prep Kitchen

After a quick introduction, chef Ladner put me to work. For the next two hours I blanched basil and parsley for pesto, chopped roasted onions, poached eggs, ran tomatoes through a food mill, resuspended cheese in an Alfredo sauce, and cooked off a whole lot of diced pork belly.

Pork Belly

By 10:30 it was time to head to the truck, which was parked in front of Harvard’s Science Center. (What’s the difference between MIT and Harvard? MIT has a Humanities Department, Harvard has a Science Center.)

Unlike the bog-standard refitted step van, the Pasta Flyer “truck” is a restored 1970 Airstream Nomad outfitted with a Garland cooking suite.

Kitchen

The propaner-stove and flattop were dedicated to keeping pots of water as close to a boil as possible. Ladner’s original plan was to par-cook the pasta in water, then finish individual portions in a microwave, a technique he had tested extensively. Unfortunately, using the microwave in addition to all of the other appliances on the truck tripped the circuit breakers, a result with which I was all to familiar. Plan B was par-cooking the pasta, portioning it out, and then giving it a quick dunk in boiling water to finish when ordered.

The menu presented on the Pasta Flyer site was deemed overly ambitious for the truck’s maiden voyage (Harvard was the first stop on a month-long cross-country tour), so the ordering matrix was reduced to three pasta shapes (screws (fusilli), tubes (rigatoni), and elbows (elbows));  three sauces (tomato, Alfredo, and pesto); and three toppings (meatballs, crispy bacon (the pork belly), and truffled poached egg. That’s a lot of possible combinations, all of which were tracked from the cash register, which generated the expedite ticket for each order.

There was also a table of garnishes: roasted onions, sautéed chard, peperonata, chick peas, ricotta, crispy capers, grated parmesan, sriracha, Frank’s hot sauce, and olive oil:

Garnishes

Five people filled that tight space: the cashier, the pasta dunker, the expediter, the assembly chef, and me, who tried to keep out of the way while still making myself useful. Orders would come in, the expediter would read off the paste type for the dunker to finish, cups of pasta were set in bowls for assembly, and the chef would build the order. His station consisted of three large rice cookers which kept the sauces warm, and three slow cookers that held each of the toppings. Pasta would get tossed with sauce in a mixing bowl, then toppings would be added before being served up. Here’s a bowl of screws with tomato sauce and meatballs:

Screws, tomato sauce, meatballs

Simple sauce, flavorful beef meatballs, and pasta cooked just al dente – proof that gluten-free product can hold its own as long as it’s not overcooked.

During my three-hour shift I wiped countertops, cracked eggs, restocked garnishes, portioned pasta, and expedited orders once the lunch rush had passed. We did 150 covers in three hours – almost an order a minute.

I took a break in order to see chef Ladner’s lecture to the students in the Physics of Soft Matter class, where he demonstrated his gluten-free pasta method.

Pasta Demo

And, of course, pictures or it didn’t happen, so here’s the Instagram post from Erin, the social media manager:

Instagram

The other fellow is Greg, another Kickstarter pledge. And, yes, chef Ladner is very tall.

What did I learn? That serving food to a lot of people in not a lot of time is hard work. I didn’t embarrass myself in prep or service, so I consider the experience a minor victory, but it convinced me (again) that restaurant cooking is a young(er) person’s game.

2 comments

JO'N September 29, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Remember, though, the Harvard Science Center doesn’t actually contain any science departments (the only departments it houses are math, statistics, and history of science). The actual science departments are all in Harvard’s other incredibly numerous science buildings in the neighborhood of Oxford and Kirkland Streets. Then there’s the huge office complex up on Garden St — where I spent a lot of time — that contains the Harvard Astronomy dept, the Harvard Observatory, the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. So there.

David September 30, 2014 at 5:47 pm

I’m not letting facts get in the way of a good joke. Just as there’s no science in Harvard’s Science Center, there’s precious little humanity in MIT’s Humanities department.

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