Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sitting down at the toughest table in Kansas City

Posted By on Thu, Mar 22, 2012 at 9:15 AM

Chef Bob Brassard talks to a student about using the grill.
  • Chef Bob Brassard talks to a student about using the grill.
The four men in jackets look at the clock. They’re hungry.

At this white-tablecloth-covered rectangular table in the otherwise empty modern dining room inside Broadmoor Bistro, they wonder how long they’ll have to wait. When the food starts to arrive, delivered by culinary instructor Justin Hoffman, the men take slow, contemplative bites. On a Tuesday in March, this might be the toughest table to please in the city.

Chefs Michael Smith, Chris Hall and Trevor Thomas are here with chef Robert Brassard, the man who has overseen the culinary arts program at Broadmoor Technical Center (6701 West 83rd Street in Overland Park) for the past 11 years. Over the next two hours, they’ll taste 28 dishes. Muffled sounds of conversation and clanking pots leak from the kitchen a few feet away, behind a red garage door where seven culinary students are auditioning for a chance to compete at the SkillsUSA Championships June 23—27 at Bartle Hall.

“This is an industry about adrenaline on demand. You have to be responsive to whatever is happening in a restaurant,” Brassard says as he walks through the kitchen to check on the progress of four student bakers, who are also competing to represent Broadmoor in June.

Across the hall from the kitchen, ramekins are piled high on a classroom lab table, the leftovers of a lecture on soups and sandwiches from earlier in the day. The culinary arts program has a dinner service open to the public every Wednesday (To see a slideshow of the Broadmoor Bistro's Wednesday dinner service, click here.) when school is in session (with seatings 5:30—7:15 p.m.), and a tapas-themed menu is being developed for April and May.

“I just wish more Kansas Citians knew about us,” Brassard says. “There’s not many places to get U-10 scallops and butter-poached lobsters for $25.”

Today’s menu concentrates on chicken. The students have had four hours to butcher a bird and prepare a soup, a salad and two chicken entrées (a sautéed breast and a braised leg or thigh).
In the dining room, each of the four chefs shows his own style of tasting. The fork of InterContinental executive chef Hall swoops down, his hand drawing an imaginary J. Brassard unconsciously leans forward, meeting each forkful with his body. Thomas, the executive chef at St. Luke’s South, hacks off pieces of his bird in the manner of a determined grandfather stealing cake.

“This soup tastes like an open-faced chicken sandwich,” Thomas says, after spooning up a bite of velouté.

White pieces of paper slowly pile up on the table next to a saucepan filled with the silverware used for tasting. The paper corresponds to a student’s number — the judging is blind. The chefs are like crime-scene investigators, re-creating what happened in a kitchen they can’t see. Darkened breadcrumbs suggest that a pan caught fire. The best response is often a few seconds of silence as each chef digests what he’s tasting.

“I want to give him an Aerosmith tape: Lord of the Thighs,” jokes Smith, complimenting a thigh braised in veal stock.

The unforgiving nature of chicken is why chefs are often judged on how well they can execute the simplest dish. A bird that’s cooked perfectly comes out without enough salt. The right seasonings are lost on an extra-crispy leg.

“Do we have chicken liver in the fridge?” Hoffman asks.

“No, they got it out of the chicken,” Hall answers.

Hoffman carries the final plate back to the kitchen, and the four chefs push back from the table.

“We might need some digestive enzymes,” Brassard says. “It’s not the quality of the food; it’s the volume.”

The garage door lifts, and seven student chefs, six men and one woman, nervously fidget. They’re the ones who look like they might need digestive enzymes.

“Did you get any undercooked chicken?” one of them asks.

“No,” Thomas answers for the other chefs, who also shake their heads.

“Awesome,” she says, visibly relieved.

“The key is to work on organization,” Hall says. “The food can’t get there if you’re not organized.”

“We’ve all been on a station going down in flames,” Smith adds, “but when somebody comes to help — and in a good kitchen, someone will help you — they can’t help you if your station isn’t organized.”

The door rattles closed, and one of the students lets out an audible sigh of relief. Each returns to his or her station. There’s an hour and a half of cleaning to do. The three guest chefs give their regards to Brassard and make their way outside to the parking lot. They have a night of dinner service ahead of them, and tables of people waiting to taste and judge their own food.

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