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Welcome to the second installment of All About Eve, Young & Hungry’s behind-the-scenes glimpse of working at Restaurant Eve. Part I is here.
“Try this,” said Cathal Armstrong after the lunch round on a sultry afternoon in late August. It was a giant bowl of neon-green sauce of some sort, made from a vat of habañero peppers. Cooks from the line huddled around the expediting station, armed with plastic spoons. Each took his turn.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi. That fast, heat scorched the front of their tongues. Peals of laughter emanated from the kitchen. “For God’s sake, don’t drink water. Milk. Yogurt. Or ride it out,” Armstrong (mostly known as “Chef”) called.
A day earlier, in a dash toward the walk-in for Trickling Spring Creamery milk, I nearly smacked into an Amish boy standing in the nearby doorway to the alley. He was there with his father to deliver produce from his family’s farm. 11 or 12, he wore a brimmed hat, his thick auburn hair in a bowl cut; his clear, light eyes stared through me. He was clean and bright—a contrast to the sultry, sodden blanket of the afternoon outside.
I’m not sure this kid was responsible for the bevy of habaneros that had landed in the kitchen at Restaurant Eve, but in my mind, he was. Between his youth and his dress, he looked like he should have been delivering strawberries, and greens, and pea tendrils. Not cherry peppers and cubanelles, jalepeños and habañeros. But here we are, the end of summer—nearly past the fruits, in the midst of goose berries, plums, squash and, yes, hot peppers.
Why do we associate hot climates with hot peppers? Maybe because that’s when they’re best—when the air is thick as pea soup, sweat is an unwanted fashion accessory, and a nice stiff cocktail in a jelly jar sounds about right as the mercury rises.
“Have you ever had that Peruvian chicken on Route One?” Armstrong asks Jeremy Hoffman, his chef de cuisine, who moved to the area from New York two years ago. Chef was talking about El Pollo Ranchero in Alexandria. “I’ll take you sometime.”
Armstrong riffed on why the chicken is so good—from the skin to the sauces, particularly those with heat from hot peppers. He talked about complexity of flavor.
The memory of a meal inspired him, as he promptly called Leonard, a server, into the kitchen. “Leonard, go to the store and get some queso fresco, or if you can’t get it, some sour cream.” A line cook was directed to cut herbs from the garden.
An hour later, Chef worked the mixer in the pastry area, as two guys from the line watched and listened to him explain what flavors he sought to create by mixing fat, acid and the heat from the peppers. He was layering. Though his enthusiasm was all mad scientist, he was focused, purposeful.
“Come try this,” he said for the second time that day. Again armed with spoons, the kitchen battalion sampled this rendition. It was kicky, but cool, with a hint of citrus.
Armstrong’s hot sauce was vetted as a condiment at staff meal. Based on the enthusiasm of his employees, it was ready for its debut in the dining room. As an accompaniment with sashimi in the Tasting Room and as an aioli on brioche in the Bistro, the humble habañero goes high brow, inspired by cheap eats.
Photo by ginnerobot via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license