The Dessert Psycho
Oct 30 2009
BY SAM MCPHEETERS, PHOTOS BY GLEN E. FRIEDMAN
I’ve worked in just enough restaurants to recognize an abnormally large pastry station when I see one. It was January, and I was standing in the kitchen below Del Posto, one of New York’s—and thus the world’s—most prestigious restaurants. The spotless counter before me was at least a dozen feet long, and the region it bordered—stainless-steel shelves, ovens, a bulky Fusion freezer on wheels that no one seemed very happy with—was now ruled by my old friend Brooks Headley, the head pastry chef here for the past year. Although I’d been sure to rib him about his rubber clogs and double-ply running socks on the way in, this was pretty much just a defense mechanism against the disconnect of seeing someone I’ve known for a long time in a position of exalted authority.
It was hard to shake the feeling that I was constantly getting in the way, despite the spooky indifference of passing staff. Employees flowed around me without eye contact, silent except for occasional murmurs of “behind” to indicate that they needed to get to a cabinet I happened to be blocking with my body. It felt like I was interfering with the duties of a beehive. When I expressed this concern to Brooks, he seemed amused.
“No, man, everyone here is terrified of a guy writing stuff down.”
He was right. My small notebook guarded me from scrutiny. That’s why no one gave me so much as a glance. When I had to cross the kitchen back to the restroom, I made sure to conspicuously carry the notebook in front of me. Later, when that still didn’t seem sufficient protection from sudden ejection, I held the notebook and pen in both hands like props, and used my Looking for Frank face (vigilant, stern, scanning the periphery) to assert my right to stay.
Brooks led me on the rounds of his prep. Navigating the hubbub of the kitchen felt like being inside an episode of The West Wing. In a dry storage room, we paused before thousands of dollars’ worth of glittering olive oil. The entire kitchen had the eerie cleanliness of a private hospital, its floors without stains. I’ve worked in as many restaurants as Brooks, but always on the ass end of the labor equation: dishwashing, busing, mopping. Before this day, I’d never been in the back of any restaurant that didn’t smell of garbage and wet rubber mats and ammonia. When I inquired about industrial can openers, I was told there were none—they get too dirty. The spotless trash vestibule smelled like a waiting room and was air-conditioned in January. If Brooks had told me to pull up a chair here for the rest of the day, I would’ve been quite comfortable.
In a smaller prep area adjacent to a walk-in freezer, I audited a session of juicing for something called the Collezione, the Collections Menu, a $175, three-hour-plus dining experience that ended with a stack of goodies in an “I [heart] NY” bag (“after three hours, all those foods, of course you’re gonna fucking love New York”). According to the terminology of elite dining, the translucent emerald-green essence of celery and apple is a “soup,” not “juice.” The conversation swung around to the stereotypes of restaurant workers. “You could say the most horrible, racist joke you wouldn’t even tell a junkie,” Brooks explained of his lofty cooking environment. “But you wouldn’t even joke about spitting in someone’s food.” After the juicing/souping, he produced a frosty metal canister of blood-orange sorbet he’d whipped up earlier. When he extracted the spoon, a thick curl of fluorescent magenta gloop dangled before us. “That’s the hang.” Brooks said with some satisfaction. This was a function of dextrose, I later learned, leading to a taste that was less sweet than granulated—a phenomenon confined to the universe of Italian gelato. Ice cream has no hang. He grinned. “The hang is totally the shit.”
Occasionally, Brooks handed me samples to taste. I involuntarily closed my eyes after each bite, like a drug fiend in the first moment of a fix. With every tiny thimbleful of dessert, I had the odd sensation that dormant chambers of my brain had been briefly illuminated, as if by a flare, only to go dark again. Afterward, it was difficult trying to hold a conversation and not let on that I would do anything—betray any ideal, hurt any child—for just another taste. Back at the prep station, Brooks produced a tiny eggcup and scooped out a single teaspoon of tiramisu for me to sample. Through the rest of our conversation, I desperately eyed the residue clinging to the inside of the cup.
We quickly fell back into an old pattern from his drummer days, me barraging him with questions, him answering with good-natured bemusement. Is it true some restaurants are so fancy they don’t offer salt and pepper? (Yes: Del Posto is one of them.) Why are expensive desserts presented on oversize plates? (Predictably: “presentation.”) I watched as Brooks sprinkled crumbled chocolate under certain desserts as an anchor, or a reverse garnish. What was this called? (“I dunno... crunchy shit?”)
From my vantage point—a cuisine-ignorant layman who had quite literally walked in off the street—it seemed like there were two fundamental principles in play here, sometimes in direct conflict with each other: “Simple Italian” versus “High End.” This struggle revealed itself in the tartufo al caffè (served with coffee and candied lemon; $15), a paperweight-size blob of mousse that resembled its fungus namesake far more than most chocolates. The tartufo had been hand-mussed outside a mold and then airbrushed with cocoa to create an organic asymmetry. It was a labor-intensive, inefficient way to make something look Italian, “straightforward,” and pointedly not “hoity-toity.”
Normal desserts, of the apple-pie variety, lack acid and salt. Del Posto, acting through Brooks, corrects this situation. Headley desserts feature salt, vinegar, malic acid (the tartness in sour Jolly Ranchers), Saigon cinnamon (underused in Italian cooking), nutmeg shavings, and fried thyme as a garnish. I sampled some celery sorbet that’d been sprinkled with a coarse-grained sea salt; the oppositional flavor was startling. But for all the innovation, the dessert menu at Del Posto still offers sweets. At the end of a long night working with salty meats and sauces, most chefs want champagne for its sweetness. At the end of his nights trafficking in sugar, Brooks craves potato chips.
He seemed to have completely forgotten about a fresh wound. The night before, a customer had brought in their own cake from a local bakery and Brooks had reluctantly agreed to cut it (“I thought it was a hunk of shit”). A line cook (a chef in charge of a particular region on the savory side) loaned him a knife, and he promptly sliced open his index finger—pastry chefs, not having to cleave meat, are known for their dull cutlery. Being professional, he didn’t get any blood on the cake or customers, but the cut was deep enough to send him to Saint Vincent’s. Today, it didn’t seem to merit mention. It made me think of a night, years earlier, when Brooks had casually rolled up his sleeves and shown me a disturbing collection of thin white scars on both forearms, souvenirs of past encounters with hot baking trays. When I remembered to ask about the cut several hours into my visit, he just shrugged, telling me that his blisters from last year’s “88 Drummers” free concert in Brooklyn—in a past incarnation, he’d drummed in five touring bands for over a decade—were far worse. “Worse emotionally as well,” he added without explanation.
The rush arrived later than I’d expected. At 9:45, a curtain of stress descended over the kitchen. In my own experience, a rush meant doing one repetitious task much quicker: processing checks, scrubbing plates, hauling trays. For Brooks, it meant performing a hundred tasks at inhuman speed. I tried to smoosh myself and my notebook as close to the wall as possible. At one point he yelled, “One dessert! One dessert!”—then grabbed a plate and disappeared into the throng. As I contemplated how long I should linger, he suddenly came charging back, yelling, “More egg yolks right now, right now, right now!” I’d never seen him under these conditions, and it took a moment to register that this wasn’t a gag. Brooks looked at me abruptly and said, “You should take off now.” Sixty seconds later, I found myself back on the sidewalk, unsure what had just happened or what sacred culinary taboo I’d just unknowingly and horrifically violated.
I met Brooks in 1992, when I was 23 and he was 20. He’d been an undergrad at Towson University, just outside Baltimore, but had placed his English degree on hold to join Born Against, the hardcore punk band I sang for. Although Brooks had already drummed for a few local bands, ours had been touring heavily for two years at that point, and there was some concern that the level of sacrifice he was willing to make (swapping one BA for another, commuting six hours a week, traveling anywhere) was too much to ask of a new member. But he fit in well, and I remember those shows and van rides as a nice oasis from the previous levels of internal band drama. The first impression Brooks gave—businesslike, compact, intense—ceded to a refreshingly optimistic young man with an explosive sense of humor.
When we’d first met, I was known for my exceptionally bad eating habits. Dinner usually consisted of ramen noodles and cold spaghetti sauce with vegetables hastily diced and tossed in raw. When that seemed like too much effort, it was cold Campbell’s vegetable soup eaten right out of the can. On the road, a typical lunch could involve me stalking into a gas station, emerging with a box of ice cream, and devouring this in angry silence in the loft of the van. This wasn’t only laziness; it was the logical outcome of a fuzzy philosophy. Cooking—both at home and on the road—seemed far too impermanent to care about. Even brewing coffee felt like a sucker’s game; why would I want to make something I could just as easily buy from the vending machine in the emergency room of the hospital right across the street?
In contrast to (and perhaps to spite) my own eating habits, the other band members made pilgrimages to every health-food store and restaurant they could find on tour. Brooks’s excitement at traveling the country for the first time was matched by his excitement at the new foods we were exposed to. The rest of us weren’t a particularly well-mannered bunch, so he was also subject to our bad-mouthing the drummer he’d replaced, a perfectly nice chap who had left the band after a series of miscommunications. One of the strange charges leveled against this previous drummer was that he’d cooked nice meals for everyone on tour. So when Brooks started a “food diary” of everything everyone ate, he decided to keep his new interest in food a secret. He now credits this diary as the first step on the road that eventually led to Del Posto (he destroyed it years later, but his mom confirmed its existence and that it was “hilarious”). Except for the Boycott of Wheat-Fried Goods and Services—a movement he and I invented and championed to baffled fanzine interviewers—I don’t remember either of us ever discussing food on tour.
I think back on these trips now and scour my memories for clues. The mystery of tragedy is a staple of news shows—the distraught parents who never thought their child would be capable of murder, the coworkers baffled by an incident of workplace violence. But its correlate mystery—the opacity of talent—gets relatively little play in the media. For me, it’s just as intriguing. How can someone rise to prestige without giving any indications of ambition? What made Grandma Moses take up painting in her 70s? What made G.W. Bush take his life seriously at 40? How do people pull off these radical and seemingly effortless course corrections?
Thus was the mystery of Brooks. We’d toured together six times, and I’d never gotten the impression that he’d felt any calling higher than being an excellent drummer. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2003 to form our second band, Wrangler Brutes, Brooks had established himself in several DC restaurants. Even then, his mom, back in Maryland, made more meals for the band than he did. In this second band, I found myself comparing him, as a drummer, to that scene in Terminator 2 where Schwarzenegger stands on guard, immobile as night fades to full daylight; inscrutable, unflagging, unwavering, hitting the drums as hard as possible every time he played. But the mystery cut both ways. I also remember several concerned conversations with other band members over the possibility that such a mysterious and untiring man could be the ultimate al-Qaeda sleeper agent, biding his time in punk bands, touring, recording, waiting for the secret signal to strike. I had to learn from Laurie Alleman Weber, Brooks’s first restaurant boss, that he’d studied Russian for four years. I shared a house with Brooks for a year, in the mid-90s, and never knew he smoked. In years of conversation, the subject of food—ingredients, preferences, recipes, techniques—came up maybe a few dozen times, probably on par with the statistical average for any subject matter. What he never said was, “Hey, you know what? I think someday I’ll become a world-class chef.”
Del Posto occupies one corner of the old National Biscuit Company building on Manhattan’s west side. It shares the building with a Moët Hennessy USA distributor, the CBS College Sports NY headquarters, and Craftsteak steakhouse. Unlike most restaurants in New York, Del Posto occupies 24,000 square feet. When you step past the foyer and its neat collection of Michelin award plaques, you are faced with a sprawling complex of marble and mahogany that seems like the kind of place Mussolini would have dined at. It is a terrifying, beautiful, awe-inspiring interior, its physical imposition a direct reflection of a moment in time when New York and America’s economy boomed. The restaurant is co-owned by restaurateur/vintner Joe Bastianich, his mother Lidia Bastianich, head chef Mark Ladner, and celebrity chef/TV personality Mario Batali. The fare at Del Posto reflects Batali’s long-standing advocacy of Italian cuisine at any cost.
It’s also one of the highest-profile Certified Green restaurants in America. All trash is recycled or composted. Del Posto sells no bottled water, instead piping spring water up from 50-liter aluminum kegs on the lower floor. The menu offers a wide range of vegan and vegetarian options that are full dishes in themselves, not substitutions. All fryer oil is piped to a collection chamber by the back door and used to gas up several company vehicles once a week. Brooks’s delivery of blood oranges—shipped out from Santa Monica—presented one of the biggest conflicts to the green mandate. Despite all this, the space’s size and monied elegance makes it easy to mistake Del Posto for something more ominous: a large, profitable business with no connection to anything besides profit and spectacular food.
Such charges have extra resonance for anyone associated with the realms of the hippie or the punker, and perhaps an even further oomph for people like me and Brooks, who toured together during the heyday of the hippie-punk cookbook phenomenon. We were both the same sort of vegetarian during this period—serious about not eating meat (although neither of us can remember if we were vegan) and equally serious about mocking those more serious than us. Even when you were inside it, there was a lot to mock from the veggie sub-subculture: the preciousness, the self-importance, the obsessive use of the word “yummy” to describe food that clearly was not. In hindsight, this world seems like a forerunner of the modern “foodies” and their even more modern, Facebook-based “foodiots” who post the details of their entire gastronomic lives for all the world to see.
In 1999, Brooks answered an ad in the DC City Paper for a pastry assistant at Galileo, one of the best Italian restaurants in Washington. At the time, he knew nothing about the place. He wasn’t even looking for a restaurant job. But once he interviewed and discovered he wouldn’t have to deal with meat, his interest was engaged. “Which would seem like an absolutely moronic way to choose a cooking career to most, if not all, chefs,” he told me. “But it would totally make sense to someone from the punk scene.” When I spoke with Alleman Weber, she included a key detail in his hiring: a passionate, heartfelt letter describing pastry cuisine as his “true destiny.” The letter had moved her, and she seemed to imply that she felt an obligation, as a human being, to hire anyone who would present himself in so direct a manner.
He worked there for a year. It was hard, engaging labor, but the pay was minimum wage, and when he was offered a spot in the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, one block away from Galileo, it seemed like a logical progression. Galileo’s chef de cuisine was upset at his departure and gave Brooks a speech about “selling out” that had the uncanny echo of a fanzine rant. Most of the speech turned out to be prophetic—the hotel job was indeed high-volume “factory work” that Brooks found “super-corporate” and “totally shitty” and “total bullshit.” Many of his coworkers were weathered lifers, the types of guys who study hard at culinary school only to lose themselves in the grinding monotony of a job they hate, crafting dishes they have no emotional connection to day after miserable day.
Less than a year later, this same chef de cuisine called him out of the blue, saying he was starting a new restaurant and wanted Brooks for the pastry chef. This was Tosca, where Headley was to work, in two different periods, for half a decade. It was a preposterous compliment for someone with his experience level. My wife and I ate at Tosca years later, and—except for their mysterious dearth of salt and pepper shakers—found it an enjoyable (and unaffordable) treat. As we were leaving, I asked the headwaiter if he remembered Brooks. “Ah yes,” he said, beaming. “Verrry good. Brooks, yes.” Then his smile dropped. “Very quiet. Verrry quiet.”
After Wrangler Brutes imploded in late 2004, Brooks drove back to Baltimore by himself. It was a sad exit from Los Angeles, “kind of like tail between my legs.” He made it to the East Coast in two and a half days. Instead of stopping to see his mom or even taking a shower, he took a detour into DC, parked the car on the street, and went into Tosca having driven 2,671 miles. He felt energized being back in his old restaurant, in a professional environment that still brimmed with possibility. It was a Saturday night, in the middle of service. They weren’t expecting him and definitely didn’t know he’d chosen there as his first stop. His old boss saw him and said, “Ah, you’re back. Well, you start work on Monday.” It was as if he’d never left.
Two years later, he accepted a job at DC’s Komi, a revered and slightly experimental Dupont Circle restaurant. He found himself the oldest person in a tiny kitchen, surrounded for the first time by a staff completely obsessed with food. Even the servers talked nonstop about their favorite chefs and restaurants, harnessing the same energy Brooks had only seen record collectors spend hunting rare albums. He fed off these conversations and entered service revved, just as he’d done taking the stage with a band.
Unlike other restaurants where he’d worked, Komi was closed two days a week. He’d spend some of these off-center weekends (Sundays and Mondays) scouring DC’s farmers market for the best possible fruit for the upcoming week. Other weekends, he’d travel to New York to visit his girlfriend, inevitably dining at Lupa, the renowned West Village Italian restaurant run by Mark Ladner and Mario Batali. He was obsessed with Ladner’s work, but so was everyone at Komi. When they all regrouped on Tuesday morning, everyone would compare notes about where they’d eaten over the weekend.
In late 2007, wanting to be near his girlfriend, he moved to Brooklyn and took a radical professional downgrade at a restaurant he wasn’t happy with on the Upper West Side. One Friday night the next January, Brooks had been up late drinking and decided to write a letter. Through a local food blog (a grapevine Brooks despises and was embarrassed to admit frequenting), he’d heard the pastry chef at Del Posto was leaving. He would demand the job. After he drafted his letter, he went to their website and sent it to their private-events planner, the only email address he could find. When Brooks showed me this email much later, I expected a hilarious screed, the blotto first impression he’d had to rise above during his interview. But it’s a surprisingly well-composed expression of ambition written by a young man who just happens to be hooched up (he chalked this up to completing his English degree in 1999). “I am, to put it bluntly, a dessert psycho,” the letter stated. He sent the email, fell asleep, and forgot all about it the next day. On Monday morning, he was shocked to receive an email asking to come in and meet with Mark Ladner.
After a preliminary interview, he was granted a “tasting,” a live demonstration of his skills. Knowing there was no way he could replicate the exact menu given to him, he decided to deviate—less of a calculated risk than making the best of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The first tasting—a seven-course dessert-sampling extravaganza—was set for noon. Less than two hours into the morning’s prep, the kitchen manager told him that Mario Batali had made a surprise visit, and could Brooks therefore go on an hour early? These were three major curveballs, factoring in that Batali, from Brooks’s perspective, may not be so receptive this early in the morning. But Brooks managed the presentation, and halfway through Batali stopped him cold and said those six magic words every pastry chef dreams of: Dude. This shit is fucking awesome. He did another tasting a few days later.
A week went by. Ladner called and asked him to come in that Sunday to “hang out.” When he arrived, he found the hostess conspicuously nice. Brooks ordered some wine, but when Ladner came out to meet him he insisted they switch to champagne. Over the course of several hours, Del Posto treated Headley to the Grand Tasting Menu, a $125 banquet. Mark Ladner is a big man, and Brooks found himself working to keep up with the free flow of alcohol, still not sure if he had been hired. At a certain point, they moved to the mezzanine. By midnight, they’d been drinking for four hours. The staff brought out every dessert on the menu. Sweets were falling off the tiny table. Brooks, blitzed, didn’t want to say anything. Ladner motioned to the pile.
“Can you do better than this?”
“All right,” Ladner said, looking out over the entire enormous empty restaurant. “You got the job.”
It took Brooks a moment to process this. He revered Batali’s cooking. Ladner had been a personal hero for years. He’d suddenly found himself in the rarified universe of Tim Owens of Judas Priest, or Jared Warren of the Melvins, or young Henry Garfield of Black Flag: guys who joined bands they’d once worshipped from afar.
Abruptly, Ladner switched gears.
“I just want you to know, man, you are a total fucking risk. Nobody knows who you are. You’re just some guy from DC who shows up here. We have nothing on you.”
“What do you mean?” Brooks asked, confused.
“We googled you. And all we found was stuff about rock bands.”
I felt like I was more stressed out hearing these stories than he had been living them. He’d been given very little prep time before his second tasting and had found himself scrambling through city streets with suitcases and boxes, catching a frantic, $60 cab ride. Of the nerve-racking appearance of Batali at that first tasting, he told me, “You can never say no, and you can never act upset.” This “show must go on” attitude seemed a quirk of his industry, similar to how cabbies are expected to work 12-hour shifts, or hospital interns three-day shifts.
“Oh yeah, it’s like being on tour in a shitty punk band, driving 12 hours to go from Sioux Falls to Boise. And you’re sick, but you’re still going to play the show.”
This was an instructive gap in our philosophies. I’ve canceled shows when sick. I’ve called off dozens of concerts, entire tours, for all sorts of reasons. I’d enjoyed canceling shows. When I thought back on it, I realized I’d never known of Brooks to cancel a show for any reason. I did know of two incidents where guitarists he’d worked with had called the cops on their own shows. I’d always agreed with this tactic—it’s a quick fix to a variety of sticky situations. Had Brooks disagreed? The breakup of Wrangler Brutes had been sparked by a show I refused to play—during various bad phone calls, I remember him saying, “But how can we cancel a show?” and thinking I’d misheard him. The question made more sense now.
“It’s weird,” Brooks said of his work ethic. “I don’t know how that got instilled in me.”
During his first few months at the restaurant, a normal workday spanned 17 hours. There were no days off. He didn’t seem to think any of this was a big deal. What, I asked, about the limits of human endurance? He didn’t get my meaning, saying only, “It’s part of the job.” I let it go, but the subject came up a little while later when I asked about sick days. Was it really true that he’d never taken one? Not in the past ten years, Brooks said, then quickly corrected himself; once, at Galileo, he had all four wisdom teeth removed. So he missed the following day. He quickly corrected himself again—he hadn’t actually taken the following day off. Later in our talk, he remembered being sick a few times as a pastry chef and going home “early” (meaning, after eight hours). When I asked his mom if he’d shown signs of exhaustion, she laughed and said he seemed “exhilarated by the challenge.” But we both quickly agreed on the logical afterthought: Can exhilaration and adrenaline sustain a human?
There was a punch line to this inhuman schedule. In late 2008 he started a new band. The two-piece, Oldest, practices at least once a week. He summed up his band in an email:
It’s still ridiculous and abrasive and not grown up—all meant as assets. It’s all still brutally valid to me. It’s not something I did when I “was a kid.” Fuck that.
I spoke with Oldest bandmate Mick Barr, who confirmed that, yes, he’d never seen Brooks exhausted after practice. He added that, to be fair, by the time the band started Brooks was down to 12-to-14-hour working days. The worst he’d seen was during the early days, when Brooks, still rusty as a drummer, would transform his uncallused hands into hamburger and then head off to work. “The only time he seemed exhausted to me was a couple months ago when he got back from that trip to Japan. He had insane jet lag. That’s the only time I’ve seen him even slightly show any signs of wear.”
I saw Brooks again in May. He’d just returned from Austin, where he’d flown with his girlfriend to see UK crust-punk band Amebix. Since January, his hair had exploded into an unmanageable, mad-scientist maestro wig. The Japan trip Mick had spoken of was still two weeks in the future. He was being flown to Osaka to participate in a dessert demonstration for the national pastry-shop chain Plaisir. It was rock-star stuff, a heady compliment. He seemed more stressed by preparing for the missing week than the actual trip itself.
We’d earlier agreed that Memorial Day would be the perfect time for another visit. Now it seemed I’d be getting a major exposure to the kitchen’s downtime. Today’s holiday sat at the far pole from Valentine’s Day, when orders—“covers”—could run over 500. A heavy day, with banquets, was anything in the range of 400 covers. A normal Monday hit 200 covers. Today, they’d be lucky to see 80. The entire kitchen crept along at the pace of a bus-station waiting room. Slow days were a paradox for Brooks. He was far less inclined to experiment with new ideas when he actually had the time to do so. There was a paradox for me as well; just as time was slowing to a crawl for him, I was finding my own perception of time sped up as I quickly processed new smells, tastes, and concepts.
He showed me the three types of order tickets. There were Fire Tickets (self-explanatory), VIP Tickets (alerting him to the presence of a food critic, a crony of the bartender, a former mayor or US president, the sous chef’s girlfriend, or—most stressful and terrifying—another top-tier NYC pastry chef), and tickets for the tasting menu (which he must have explained to me a half dozen times, in our various chats, without securing my full comprehension). The term “pastry chef” is a misnomer, an industry phrase for a position that is actually the opposite of a bakery position (which involves far more prep). Brooks makes little in the way of actual pastries. He describes his job as “very last-minute preparation of food that just happens to be dessert.” There is, in his job, an element of the concierge—doing his best to work, at the last minute, to please people he will never meet. Since it was slow, he demonstrated the finesse of writing “Happy Birthday, Cara!” on a plate. It looked absolutely pro, although he admitted other messages were a bit harder to script.
At all times, we were never more than a few feet from the two most important tools of a pastry chef’s life: parchment paper (running out of this was an Armageddon scenario, too horrific to contemplate) and a 14.1-ounce Worthington Pro Grade propane torch, which Brooks carried at his side, like a weapon. At one point, he used this torch to make a butter-chocolate glaze shine like a new penny loafer. Examining one of his workstation’s shelves, I was surprised to find, in a neat stack of books on Italian cooking, one volume on French cuisine by a former pastry chef. When I inquired about this, he told me, “You have to know what the shitty bands sound like.”
I asked how much Batali’s zealously pro-Italian outlook had impacted his own pastry style. “Entirely,” he said, although he later took pains to stress that his style was “Italian,” meaning only “pro-Italian” and not “anti-French.” His hiring was both a cosmic coincidence and the direct result of a focused study of the very cuisine that Batali had himself championed and popularized. Brooks found himself in the absurd position of not having to tailor his work to please his employers. “I do exactly what he wants,” he said of Batali, “which just happens to be what I want as well.” Most pastry chefs are working in places where they can’t express themselves because they have stylistic restraints imposed on them: Somehow, magically, Brooks had managed to bypass that trap of professional life.
The Memorial Day staff meal consisted of hot dogs and onion rings, “kind of a joke,” he said. It was a strange environment for someone coming from Brooks’s background. Del Posto’s vegan and gluten-free menu is a refreshing anomaly in the cuisine world, but the restaurant still serves plenty of meat. Batali has worked with testicles, cockscombs, feet, and all manner of offal. At one point Brooks, no longer vegetarian, had dabbled in a dessert recipe that used bacon. He’d been “displeased” with the results. I tried to decipher his objections. Aesthetics? Much later, he emailed:
As far as “bacon desserts” go, that’s not my style at all. That’s a trendy 2006ish restaurant thing that really does not interest me. I’m an ingredient-driven pastry chef, and my main ingredients are seasonal produce.
And even later, he further clarified:
There are a lot of chefs that are anti-vegetarian. I am 1,000% pro-vegetarian. Chefs that are anti-veg are fucking idiots. They’re crybabies with a fucking warped sense of creativity. Your walk-in is filled with beautiful fruits and vegetables. Jesus Christ, make it work, dude. I’m totally stoked to send out my vegan desserts. It’s not a chore.
A little while later that afternoon, I thought back to that abrupt end to January’s visit. What about “crash-and-burn” moments? He told me he faced these daily, which didn’t come as a surprise. At this level of cooking, athlete-quality physical stamina is expected every day, with every meal. And Del Posto operates in two extra dimensions—vastness and extreme high quality—not previously traversed by Brooks. I asked, “How bad does it get?” He seemed evasive on this, only saying that when it all works, “it’s a totally insane adrenaline rush.” I’d always viewed the culinary world as a cousin of the thespian world, and this seemed to fit my preconception—both groups feature an abnormal level of gushing about the importance of their contemporaries, both groups offer the pissiness of a self-centered world, both groups force their performers to rise above any and all obstacles.
The kitchen was so tranquil, it was hard to imagine any conflict transpiring in this space. I asked about Batali’s rumored “no drama” edict. “There’s massive drama at every restaurant,” Brooks responded offhandedly, fiddling with a Carpigiani LB-202 G RTX gelato machine that cost as much as his 2003 Prius. Curious, I pushed this point. How bad did it get? Shouting? Flying pots and pans? Cleaver fights? He shrugged. “Insane passive-aggressive drama that’s almost like an anvil on your head.” I asked how bad he himself had gotten. He hadn’t thrown anything, he stated definitely.
Having never seen him in a position of operational authority before, I was curious how he would handle giving orders. I noticed he’d been brusque on the phone ordering apple cider. With his staff, he seemed firmly neutral, punctuating many orders with “Can you... ?” Earlier in the day, I’d found him explaining concepts patiently to one of his underling cooks. At one point, he recalled a server mistake from the night before; the look of disgrace on the young man’s face was far worse than any scolding Brooks could deliver. Later in the day, we said hi to the nighttime pastry chef, Brooks’s direct subordinate. After he left, Brooks said, “That guy, Paco? He’s fucking awesome. His handwriting? It looks like an angel did it. I had to change my style.”
The creepy food-as-sex talk of male kitchen workers—a staple of my own food-service experiences—didn’t seem so prevalent in Brooks’s position. He agreed. “Being a line cook is like being a linebacker. Very macho,” he said. So the antipasti, the cold line cook, gets put down as “faggy,” which made the pastry line even lower. If it’d been a prison, he’d be in trouble.
“At times that has really made other people who I work with angry.” He switched to his imitation tough-guy cook voice; “‘Don’t you know? You just make desserts! You’re a fucking faggot!’ And I’m like, ‘All right, I’m a faggot. Cool.’” Del Posto, obviously, doesn’t cotton to such talk. Although there weren’t many opportunities for confrontation anyway. A new hire could start on the fish line, 20 feet away, and Brooks wouldn’t meet them for months.
He fired up the gelato machine. Freezing the base involved precision timing on the operator’s part, and there was a very real but entirely private satisfaction when it was gotten right. The machine disgorged a fluffy white mass: perfect gelato. He prodded and eyeballed the pale blob. I admitted my deep surprise at the tactile and visual elements of food preparation. Brooks admitted his surprise at my deep surprise.
He pulled a book off the shelf. It was hollowed out, as if to store cash or jewelry. Inside were a half dozen of his old cooking notebooks. These recipes had been gathered over many years, often as inadvertent compensation for low pay at other restaurants. He used to carry these with him everywhere and had no backups. One day, in DC, he realized that if he got mugged, he would actually have had to negotiate to keep these: They were, potentially, far more valuable than anything he could carry in his wallet. After that, he went to Kinko’s. I glanced over his shoulder. The pages looked prematurely weathered, oily and translucent. I was shocked at the sparseness of writing and complete lack of cooking temperatures. There wasn’t much here. Any mugger who nabbed these would have been sorely displeased.
Belying the paradox of slow days—or perhaps just to humor his visitor—Brooks did have one new experiment up his sleeve. I watched as he blendered a gray concoction, reworking a previous day’s licorice sponge cake with an almond base. He maneuvered around a seven-pound can of almond paste that smelled of marzipan and a one-pound, $200 container of milled vanilla beans that looked indistinguishable from coffee grounds. The end product was a light cake to be cooked in a microwave, a technique invented by chefs at Spain’s El Bulli, an establishment held, in many circles, as the best restaurant on the planet. (“Remember when every band sounded like Fugazi? El Bulli has the same encompassing influence in the current restaurant world.”) It was an overexposed recipe—“cornball” in Headley lingo—that had already been used on the savory side, to compliment a serving of goose liver. His research would determine if, and how, it could be incorporated into a dessert.
Mark Ladner arrived and jovially discussed the licorice cake. Ladner is a tall man with a quiet presence and an almost military bearing. Brooks had earlier compared him to drummer Chuck Biscuits, meaning: the unsung workhorse of a powerhouse organization. Mark tried some of the licorice cake and commented on its peculiar texture, likening it to cotton candy. Startlingly, he asked my opinion. I took a bite. The creation was so light and spongy that it flirted with nonexistence, tasting of molasses with a faint, ghostly licorice aftertaste. As we three stood there discussing the nuances of something far, far beyond my level of experience, I realized my hooded sweatshirt had a stray cat hair I’d pollinated from California, which I discretely palmed and dropped in the trash with a flush of shame.
I spoke with Ladner later. I asked him if any one particular item had grabbed his attention during those initial tastings.
“His use of fruit tasted really, really true,” he replied. This was the kind of sentence I would have rolled my eyes at years ago. Coming from Ladner’s deep, imposing voice—and backed with my own limited experience at Del Posto—it made complete sense. The word “true” is one of a handful of adjectives I could myself truthfully use to describe the samples I’d tasted in that kitchen.
“And he wasn’t scared to use salt. Until the point where it’s salty, it’s sort of enhancing the flavor of the other components. So he was able to get these hyper flavors out of some fruits that weren’t even necessarily that great. But with the addition of a little bit of extra acid and a little bit of salt, he was able to sort of make these things explode without manipulating them too much.” A lot of ground had been covered in those two demonstrations, and Ladner paused now to recall everything that had been served up.
“His world-famous bomboloni is also a showstopper,” he added, referring to the traditional Tuscan donut used to smooth over personal disputes in the Old World.
“Plus, I have a theory that all that sugar is what makes pastry chefs a little nutty. They just get too bipolar... He doesn’t have that quality quite as much, perhaps, because his desserts aren’t sickeningly sweet. I mean, he’s obsessed with pastry, but he’s not psychotic in the kitchen. People constantly comment how cohesive the meal is from start to finish, how much they love the desserts.”
I asked if Brooks seemed less mysterious now, 15 months after that night on the mezzanine. He laughed and then paused again.
“His mystery is becoming slightly more predictable,” he finally said. “But he’s still mysterious.”
The licorice-cake experiment completed, Headley carefully put everything back in its proper place. He meticulously cleaned several unknown utensils and returned them to the wall’s magnetic strip, alongside various knives, scissors, a microplane (for zesting), and a pair of needle-nosed pliers, used only for pitting dates (an idea he’d got from another chef, who in turn got it from another chef before him). The marble counter shone. We discussed the cookbooks on the shelf above the magnetic strip. Did he have any aspirations to write one? Maybe, someday, he said, although it seemed like the thought had never crossed his mind.
I hadn’t eaten lunch, so I stepped out and got a slice of pizza and a Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Coolatta. I eat worse than normal when traveling, and I eat even worse than that when I’m in New York. Twenty minutes later, I could feel my stomach howling, and I thought back to all the countless similar meals I’d eaten in this city years ago. And yet even now, as an adult who has learned a few baseline cooking skills, there still seemed to be some strange kernel of honesty in such a self-abusive lunch: There’s no “plating,” no pretense, nothing to experience, just fuel. I recalled a quote in Heat, Bill Buford’s excellent 2006 book about working under Mario Batali at his West Village eatery, Babbo:
It is the best meat I’ve eaten. But it is not a painting by Michelangelo. It’s dinner. You eat it; it’s gone.
When I returned to Del Posto, I asked Brooks if the impermanence of food bothered him. He said that he thought most chefs weren’t bothered by it, and for the most part he wasn’t either, even though he came from an artistic background that placed a premium on documentation. “You have to be completely consistent with producing a plate of food on a daily basis, and it always has to be the same, and it always has to be good,” he told me. “So the impermanence is sometimes a hard thing to deal with, and sometimes a cool thing to deal with. Because it means that no matter what you do on Saturday, on Sunday you’ve got a clean slate.”
This was the lightbulb I’d been waiting for. My own lunch that day had been a mistake. Soon I’d have forgotten all about it. No one would ever have to know about this mistake, unless I wrote about it in my article. Certainly no one would ever bother me about this mistake. There would be no MP3s of this particular bad lunch, no photographs, no PDFs. Like any other professional mistake Brooks had made or would make in the future, it would, very soon, vanish into the New York City sewer system, never to be seen again. That sounded nice.
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