If a dead fish can be haughty, this particular salmon seemed stunningly, almost arrogantly proud. Even though he was lying in a bed of ice in a cool, white-tiled basement, he still managed to project an air of, "You, sir, have never seen a fish like me."
He was right. I hadn't.
Nor was he the only fish like that. The basement was like the All-Star game locker room: all around me, six or seven hundred pounds' worth, carefully iced and waiting their turn, were the Lebron Jameses and Kevin Durants of the fish world.
In the same way Steph Curry isn't just a basketball player, these weren't just fish. These were the best fish money--and long-term connections, and carefully forged relationships, and fish brokers' pride in knowing their products are served in arguably the best restaurant in New York and even the country--can buy.
Sometimes you find out there are worlds you never knew existed.
That, to me, was Le Bernardin.
And that was even before I saw Justo Thomas, the fish butcher, at work.
"We like to call him the fish whisperer," says Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin and the author of the excellent new book, 32 Yolks: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line. "He has an almost intuitive feel for each fish. He's precise and focused and calm and amazingly good at what he does."
He has to be. The fish he butchers are the opposite of cheap, and a restaurant is a business--even one with three Michelin stars and that has held four stars from the New York Times for approximately twenty years, longer than any other restaurant in NYC. Quality is the most important criteria but yield still matters. So does speed.
In the way of all supremely talented people, Justo makes it look easy--until you try it yourself and realize achieving that level of skill is a staggering achievement.
Justo butchers an average of six to seven hundred pounds of fish a day during the week and around a thousand on weekends or for special occasions. He's in charge of inspection, cutting, ensuring an exacting degree of portion control... nothing is possible without him and everything is possible because of him.
"Sometimes I like to stand and just watch him work," Eric said as we headed for the elevator. "It's inspiring to see how clean and organized and focused he is... and yet also how calm and peaceful. I think that's what we all hope to be."
I turned for a last look. Justo glanced up and smiled as he placed another halibut on the table.
I didn't know enough about restaurants, or fish, or butchering fish to know, without being told, just how good he is... but I can always tell when someone seems to be right where he or she wants to be, taking justifiable pride in knowing that they do what they do incredibly well.
You've probably never been inside a restaurant kitchen. I hadn't either. I have caught glimpses as doors swung open, or through portals where plates are placed for servers to distribute, and they always seemed cramped and crowded and... well, usually I stop looking because it's sometimes better not to know.
Le Bernardin's kitchen is different. It looks like it's been through hair and makeup and is ready for its close-up. Stainless steel tables gleam. Plates shine. Even before the first order comes in, the chefs and cooks seem "on."
And it's not because I'm there. When we're introduced the staff are courteous and friendly and happy to chat, but otherwise they don't care about me--and I mean that in a good way. They don't see me as an audience. They know their audience is their customers and, to a lesser degree, each other: like any good team, you can tell they don't want to let each other down.
I watched as Chris Muller, Culinary Director, and Eric Gestel, Executive Chef, took a few minutes to taste sauces prepared by Vincent Robinson, the Saucier. Vincent has been at Le Bernardin longer than Eric; other roles have been discussed, but Vincent is happy in his.
Between samples they occasionally eat a small piece of cheese. To my surprise that's not to cleanse their palate; they're using the cheese as a baseline. "Your sense of taste can change slightly from day to day," Eric says. "The same item that tastes slightly salty today might taste slightly under-salted tomorrow. The cheese lets us reset our perception of taste and ensure we're consistent."
They nod and smile, clearly happy with the sauces, and I notice Vincent hasn't been paying attention. (If three chefs of that level were tasting my sauces I would have been anxiously peeking around a corner, fingers crossed.)
When Vincent walks back up the line Eric says, "Excellent." Vincent nods, and smiles, and moves on. "He's so good we just try to stay out of his way," Eric says.
Then the first orders come in. The dishes are announced, a ticket is hung at one end of the long plating table, and the order is noted on a whiteboard that serves as a quick visual reference for the status not only of the kitchen but also the dining room. Line cooks get busy, sous chefs move calmly yet purposefully... and suddenly I feel more at home.
In many ways a restaurant kitchen is an assembly line. Process matters. Coordination matters. In fact, just-in-time "manufacturing" might be even more critical in a kitchen than in a factory because every ingredient needs to arrive at the right stage at the right time in order for a dish to come together perfectly.
An unlike a factory where, say, books are made (which is what I used to do), since restaurant orders are unpredictable the demand for components constantly changes. At its best, a restaurant kitchen is like a strange kind of dance: you may know the steps, but the song can change every few seconds, so how you adapt makes all the difference.
And it gets even more complicated.
"We spend a lot of time creating and experimenting to perfect how a dish should taste," Eric says. "Once we reach that point and the dish goes on the menu, the goal is to consistently produce that dish. But that is harder than you might think. Different fish have different properties depending on the time of year, the temperature of the water... so the cooks must be able to adapt their techniques to the particular qualities of the fish. You can't just do the same thing every time. Cooking is a science and an art, and part of the art comes from knowing how to adapt your techniques to your ingredients."
In short, a good cook--a good chef--is both technically excellent and highly intuitive.
And they're really, really big on detail. I saw a plate passed to Chris, the Culinary Director. It looked perfect. Like the Supreme Court justice who said he couldn't define obscenity but he knew it when he saw it, I can't define "great presentation" but I think I can spot it.
Or then again, maybe not. Chris took what appeared to be a stainless steel toothpick and deftly moved small bits of vegetable an eight of an inch here, an eight of an inch there... until, satisfied, he placed it on the shelf for a server.
I couldn't tell the difference. He could, and clearly that different matters to him.
Every dish was handled the same. Plates were closely inspected. Items were moved slightly. Once or twice a piece of fish was deemed unworthy, but instead of the yelling or harsh words I expected (I'm looking at you, Gordon Ramsay), a few quiet words were exchanged between, say, Eric Gustel and a sous chef and a line cook: a little advice, a little feedback, and a quick, "Yes, Chef," in reply.
"My impression was that chefs yell all the time," I said to Eric.
"That is fairly common," he said. "Kitchens can be high stress environments. I sometimes used to be pretty loud but then I realized it's impossible to do your best work when people are yelling at you. So we try to stay calm and professional and treat everyone around us with respect. That doesn't mean we always succeed, but we do try.
"We have to work as a team. If you have amazing craftsmanship, amazing skills, amazing everything, yet you cannot work with the team... then you cannot be on our team. You cannot be at Le Bernardin."
I stood along the wall and watched the team in action. Granted I'm a process geek; I can watch a well-executed process all day.
But then Eric tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Come. You must try the food."
Let's just get this out of the way. I'm not a foodie. I eat the same things nearly every day. To me, food is fuel. Where food knowledge is concerned, I'm pretty much a 4th grader.
So I was also a little (okay, a lot) intimidated when Ben Chekroun, the Director de Salle, led me to my table. I figured lunch at Le Bernardin would in some ways be wasted on someone like me; there are tons of people more qualified to judge the food.
The couple beside me were definitely more qualified. They came to NYC from Michigan and had planned their whole trip around eating at Le Bernardin. I couldn't help but overhear the husband discussing the shows Eric has been on, the reviews he had read, the techniques Eric had pioneered, how difficult it would be for him to only select a few items when he wanted to try everything on the menu...
I looked at the menu and had a different reaction: I didn't know what to choose because I felt way, way out of my league.
So I did what I usually do in those situations; I threw myself on the mercy of those more knowledgeable. "I'm clueless when it comes to food," I said when Kevin Augsberg, my server, stopped by. "Can you help me?"
Kevin smiled and gave me a look as if to say, "I've got you." He walked me through the menu. He asked me what kind of fish I usually like. Then he made some suggestions. I asked a couple of questions. He made me feel a lot more comfortable.
I decided to have the tuna for my first course and the halibut for my main course.
While I waited he brought smoked salmon for me to try. How was it? Again, I'm not a foodie, so let's go with "amazing."
The tuna was even better.
The halibut was even better than the tuna, if such a thing is possible.
And then he brought dessert, and I realized that those who think heaven is on earth might just be right since there was clearly a small slice of heaven on my plate.
I was eating my dessert when the man beside me squealed like a teenager at a One Direction concert.
"I can't believe it," he said to his wife. "There's Eric!"
I looked up and saw Eric moving through the dining room, stopping at different tables to speak to guests.
"Do you think he'll come over this way?" the man asked his wife. "I would love to get a picture with him. Do you think he would?"
"Don't you dare ask," his wife said. "He won't want to do that."
"No, you're probably right," the man said, sagging a little in his chair.
I smiled to myself and thought, "No, you're probably wrong." Eric is a genuinely nice guy. And he's one of the humblest successful people I know.
I finished my dessert and let the husband's body language help me track Eric's progress, without looking through the dining room. By the time Eric got to my table, the man was practically shaking.
"Well, Jeff," Eric said. "What did you think of the food?"
I told him it was incredible. We talked about the dishes I chose, we talked about the preparation, and he helped me tie some of the things I had seen in the kitchen to the finished product.
Then I said, "Could you do me a favor?" I nodded towards the man next to me and said, "This gentleman is a big fan and would love a picture with you but he wasn't sure if you would mind."
"Absolutely," Eric said, smiling and gesturing for the man to stand beside him.
If this was a different kind of story, I would say my experience at Le Bernardin, both behind the scenes and in the dining room, changed me forever.
In most ways, though, it didn't. I still basically eat the same things. I still tend to see food as fuel. But I do occasionally glance wistfully at a piece of salmon and think, "That's not a fish." And I do occasionally go out of my way to try a new restaurant.
What my experience did do is reinforce something that is easy to forget.
Most of us tend to use words like "excellent" and "outstanding" and "superb" a lot. We mean those words, but we use them within a fairly narrow frame of reference.
"Outstanding service" may just mean that, compared to what we're used to, the guy at the auto repair shop actually called to let you know that your car was ready. "Excellent quality" may just mean that you received a little more than you expected.
It's a little like if you played high school football: the quarterback who was named All-District may have been much better than you, but he's light years from being Tom Brady.
Restaurants like Le Bernardin are the same way: the ingredients, the kitchen staff, the front of the house staff... they're on a vastly different level than what we usually experience.
Those kinds of experiences -- whether with food, or with anything else -- are good for us. They re-calibrate our expectations not just of what we receive, but more importantly of what we want from ourselves.
Comparing yourself to the very best should not be intimidating; it should be inspiring. Seeing and experiencing what is possible for others can reset your expectations for what is possible -- for you.
I didn't leave Le Bernardin a converted foodie, but I did leave reminded that tirelessly working to be the best you can be, and helping others be the best they can be, is not only the surest path to excellence but is also the surest path to living a fulfilling life.
And that is something we all want to feel.
(If you're interested in how successful people become successful--and if you're not, why aren't you? -- check out 32 Yolks: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line. It's a great story, especially for people just starting out, since Eric focuses on his formative years.
"My time at Le Bernardin has been well documented," Eric told me, "and so I wanted to share what came before then and how my early years as a child and first kitchen experiences shaped my journey.")