From New York City
A guy on the 1 train uptown at 5:30 p.m. motioned me that I had something on my face. I checked my reflection in the subway car window, and I had a huge schmear of flour across my cheek. I was also smiling.
The schmear and the smile pretty much sum up my day.
It began in the polar opposite way most of my days begin: standing in the dark on the loading dock of a restaurant in lower Manhattan, with a pastry assistant and a chain-smoking line cook, trying to figure out how to get inside.
We were all supposed to start work at 6 a.m., but there we were, locked out. Neither employee had a key, and I, of course, was of no help at all. Apparently there had been some sort of crossed signal; Monday is the only night that Bubby’s actually closes (the other days are 24 hours), so Tuesday morning is the only day someone has to open the place. And I guess no one was really sure who that someone was supposed to be. Neither Leslie, the pastry assistant, nor Joanie, the line cook, relished waking up Ron, the owner. But sooner or later, someone did, and he walked over, and pulled open a side window. (I still don’t quite get why he didn’t just unlock the door. But I didn’t think to ask at that hour.) Joanie climbed in the side window and let us all in.
That surreal beginning behind us, we tied on our aprons and got going. I cracked a couple dozen eggs for Leslie as she made massive bowls of pancake batter, and watched her haul apple turnovers, made yesterday and frozen overnight, from the freezer and pop them into the oven. Florentino, another pastry assistant, was making balls of scone dough, spiked with golden raisins and showered with handfuls of sugar, and proofing yeast for the dough that would later be baked into hamburger buns. I helped Leslie as she made sure that the plates of cookies, muffins, breakfast pastries and cupcakes that greet customers as they enter the restaurant were full and appealing under their glass domes.
As we were doing all that on the pastry side of the kitchen, the prep folks were hauling out big tubs of produce and slicing huge piles of meats for the line upstairs. Reggaeton and Spanish-language talk radio blasted from the radio.
Ricardo, the main pie guy after 18 years at Bubby’s, and a guy Ron had described to me as a “maniac,” showed up around 8 in billowing, wildly colored pants, a yellow baseball cap and a chef’s jacket. This was the man I was supposed to shadow. A guy with shitloads to do and not enough time to do it in, who didn’t ask to have some untrained woman from somewhere else come clutter up his day. I had an unsettling feeling that he might swipe me away like a fly. But Ricardo turned out to be not only a gentleman but a prince, allowing me to follow him around, offering a running narrative of what he was doing, and calmly risking major fuckups by letting me do stuff like roll out pastry and close up the pies with that classic little pinch pattern. I worship this guy already, and couldn’t be happier that I brought him a box of homemade fudgy brownies for a thanks-in-advance gift.
By late morning, I got my first assignment: coring and peeling apples. This is what I dread about making apple pies. But he handed me an apple-peeler/corer and showed me how to turn its suction lever so it sticks to the metal countertop. One quick run-through about how you have to center the apple on the spike and start turning the handle, with increasing speed toward the end, and I was alone with two huge boxes of apples. I mangled my share; but to my delight, within 10 or 15 minutes I was peeling and coring the hell outta those babies at amazing speed. Gotta get me one of those! It took me longer, however, to figure out how to keep my left hand out of the teeny peeler blade (ouch) and my right one out of the oiled shaft that drives the corer. I kept getting black grease on my hands and wondering why some places on the apples had a grayish cast. DAMN. But I got that under control pretty quickly. The 150-odd apples I peeled ended up in Mile High Apple Pie and Apple Whiskey Lattice Top Pie. More on those later.
Individual chicken pot pies caused a bit of a ruckus, since it seemed that they were suddenly plopped onto the menu today without a ton of warning. Why else would Ricardo have to go out and buy the little tins to make them in? The line upstairs wanted them at 11:15, but it soon became clear that was not gonna happen. The prep team barely got the filling done by 11, and it had to cool in the walk-in fridge for a bit. Besides, Leslie, who finished pastry school eight months ago and has been at Bubby’s just three weeks, was still getting the hang of the little bottom crusts, trying to get them to hang over the edges enough to fold nicely into the top crusts once the pies were filled. Finally, though, the pot pies slid into the big ovens, just as a third call, in Spanish, was blaring over the phone from upstairs asking, politely but insistently, when they would be done. They ended up making their dining room debut closer to noon.
By this time, the radio had gone silent, replaced with a louder buzz of more bodies doing more work, more quickly, and under greater pressure, than earlier. Melding into that mix were the hissing sound of the dishwasher’s spray hose, the clang of massive bowls being stacked and unstacked, the thin conk of knives chopping, and the thuds of hands banging balls of pie dough into little disks to be rolled out. It was the culinary equivalent of driving in morning traffic with your windows down.
As Leslie prepared a new batch of apple turnover filling, I watched Ricardo roll out and blind-bake six bottom crusts (cool: you take the chilled pie crust, spray the back of a lightweight aluminum pie tin with PAM, set the tin inside the crust, fill the tin with black beans, and voila, you’ve got a nice little pie weight mechanism). While those were baking, he assembled pumpkin pie filling in the Massive Bowls (I know, I can’t get past the bowl thing yet. These are huge enough for me to sit in cross-legged.). Crusts come out, filling is poured into them, and they go back in.
Can I just say here that two things, among many, struck me as particularly miraculous in Bubby’s kitchen? 1) They do NOT, despite my steely disappointed anticipation, use a dough machine to flatten balls of dough into disks. They use old-fashioned rolling pins. Let me just say that again: they roll out pie dough for 50 to 150 pies a week with rolling pins. By hand. They’re huge rolling pins, granted; they’re rolling pins on steroids, for Chrissake, but they’re doing this by hand. I just didn’t expect this, and to say I was delighted would be the understatement of the year. 2) They don’t set timers on anything that’s in the oven. That means that at any moment, Ricardo has to know in his brain, or in his gut, deep in his diaphragm somewhere, as he’s juggling six other things, that it’s time for the pumpkin pies to come out, or that the baguettes need to be checked. That is just friggin’ amazing.
Somewhere in the haze of the day’s progress, Ricardo trimmed layers of Red Velvet and chocolate cakes, putting them on the turntable and frosting them. Florentino put a huge batch of pie dough into the big stand mixer, and later made two big trays of dough balls to chill. When summoned by a call from the front-of-the-house, Ricardo had to stop what he was doing to box up pies, cakes or pie slices that customers wanted to carry out. He also had to stop to plate individual desserts as they were ordered in the dining room. And make an irresistibly pudgy apple cobbler for two, in one generous bowl, dabbed with biscuit dough and baked to a nice golden brown. This was for one of many “tastings” that add to the kitchen’s agenda: an engaged couple, or someone throwing a catered party of some other kind, needs to taste various Bubby’s offerings to see what they want to choose for their menu. All this is juggled along with staying on top of the big clipboards that hang over the metal prep tables, listing the weddings and other special events that require pies or cakes.
My pinnacle moment of the day came mid-afternoon, when the Mile High Apple Pies needed assembly. Ricardo showed me how he brings out the balls of ice cold pie dough and lets them warm a bit. Each one needs to be flattened slightly to begin its journey from ball into pie crust. He whacks it with the heel of his hand a couple of times, and then alternates a few whacks with a few turns of the dough disk, and little inward whacks with both hands, to form the disk into a pudgy biscuit shape. Now it’s ready to be rolled out. Watching him, I was gratified that he was doing something substantially similar to what I’ve been doing at home. But just as I began to enjoy watching, he straightened up abruptly, handed me the rolling pin, and said, “You do now?” And walked away. There I was, with six double pie crusts that needed to be rolled out and folded neatly into quarters. And Ricardo had gone off to do, I dunno, something else.
I set to work, trying to imitate the exact motions I saw him do moments earlier, and trying to achieve that same perfect thin-ness (I saw that the ones I make at home really are too thick). I worked my way through them, and Ricardo smiled at me as he put them in the tins. I hadn’t screwed up completely. We heaped the filling in the unbaked crusts, and Ricardo unfolded the remaining dough circles and laid them on top. He finished one pie, smoothly folding the bottom crust up over the top one, into a nice little rope, and then working his way around again with the standard pinch design to seal it. Then again, he turned to go, looking at me and saying, “You finish for me?” Holy shit. These were going to be baked, cooled and taken upstairs to be sold to customers. SOLD!!! To paying customers at a reputable restaurant!! A restaurant famous for its pies, for crying out loud. And I was supposed to finish these things.
I must have done okay. Because when Ricardo came back, he said: “Excellent, Catalina. Very nice.” And from then on, it was Catalina. He told me I should take a break and order a meal from the line; then he put me to work rolling 5-ounce balls from what looked like 30 pounds of pie dough. Each handful of dough goes on the scale to make sure it’s the right size, then it’s rolled into a round ball and lined up with the 53 others on a big tray lined with parchment. Tray number one gets wrapped in Saran wrap and popped into the rack in the big walk-in fridge. Tray number two joins it when I’ve finished that one.
Then I go to work making the filling for 10 pecan pies. Do you know how much stuff goes into 10 pecan pies? Have you ever measured out five cups of maple syrup, and 20 tablespoons of blackstrap molasses? (There has to be a shortcut to 20 tablespoons. Note to self: ask Ricardo tomorrow what the measuring-cup equivalent of 20 tablespoons is.) Do you know how many oranges you have to zest to get 10 tablespoons of orange zest? Not to mention cracking 30 eggs. And dumping four regular-sized boxes of brown sugar in there. And you know what? It’s surprisingly hard to mix that together, by hand, with a whisk that looks like it came out of Alice in Wonderland cuz it’s almost the length of my upper torso. I need to start doing pushups.
But right now, I’m way too tired. After wiping the flour off my face in the subway car, I walked back to my little room in the West Village, climbed the four flights of stairs, rinsed off the rest of Bubby’s in the shower, and plopped down here to try to capture this wild day. I’ll be in bed early, I’m sure, and back at it tomorrow morning. This time we won’t have to wait on the loading dock because the place will have been open the whole damn night.