I‘m something of a Kickstarter junkie. I’ve backed projects as diverse asÂ 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.
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.
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.
The propaner-stove and flattop wereÂ 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 FlyerÂ 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)); Â 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, sautÃ©ed chard, peperonata, chick peas, ricotta, crispy capers, grated parmesan, sriracha, Frank’s hot sauce, and olive oil:
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:
Simple sauce, flavorful beef meatballs, and pasta cooked just al dente – proof that gluten-free product can holdÂ 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.
And, of course, pictures or it didn’t happen, so here’s the Instagram post from Erin, the social media manager:
The other fellow is Greg, another Kickstarter pledge. And, yes, chef Ladner isÂ very tall.
What did I learn? That serving food to a lot of people in not a lot of time isÂ 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.