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Frank Morales III, executive chef at Rustico, is addressing a group of ninth graders from the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams who are considering restaurant careers. “When you get in the restaurant business, it’s really cool,” he says. “You get to choose where you’ll work 80 hours a week.”
Morales is a natural ham and a natural teacher. He begins the kids’ tour of Rustico the same place he began mine 20 minutes earlier—-Rustico’s back lot, where he gets in deliveries. He tells them about his passion for quality ingredients. He mentions seafood. Some of them look a little ill all of a sudden.
Turns out William Artley had just demonstrated for them how you cut up a 30 pound halibut. Some of them may never eat fish again.
Morales takes them into the dishwashing/prep area, which he calls “the fancy part.” He brings them into the cooler, where he’s making confit, curing hams and pancetta, and storing housemade pickles, including some cherries pickled in kriek that blew the back of my head off a few minutes previous.
“I’m a stickler for organized,” he says. “Little things make me very proud.”
Morales has a classic Catholic-school-teacher cadence. Showing the dough hook, he tells the kids they make dough there twice a day. “Why do we make it twice a day? Because we sell a lot of it.”
Bringing them to the wood-burning oven, he asks the kids to guess how hot it is. One of them nails it: 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Morales aims a laser thermometer at different parts of the oven, explaining the different zones. “Can you feel it?” he asks.
The kids go out to a table to pick out pizzas. “Let’s get a little bit daring,” says Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Christi Hart, who’s been chaperoning the kids through visits to Vermilion, Buzz, and the mellow-harshing incident at Evening Star. “I’m hoping everybody’s not gonna order the same pizzas.”
They don’t. Pretty much everyone orders pepperoni, but some get goat cheese with it, others get hot sausage. No one wants red peppers.
Two servers come out to demonstrate napkin-folding. Napkins at Rustico are folded to resemble the restaurant’s flame logo. The kids ask who did the tiles. Hart says she did, and tells about how delightful it was to build out Rustico from scratch after years of adapting older restaurants.
Morales comes back out and tells the kids he’s done every job in the restaurant. Even dishwasher? they ask. “I started as potwasher,” he says. “I got promoted to dishwasher.”
Then it’s back to the kitchen to see the pizzas going into the oven. Morales tells the kids the oven cost $24,000. “Isn’t that, like, a car?” asks one of the kids. It’s like two or three of some cars, he says. But on Friday or Saturday, he says, maybe 400 pizzas will go through that oven. “It earns its money,” he says.
While the pizza chef arranges the pies in the oven, Morales tells the kids that he needs to have everything just right. “You don’t want me angry,” he says. “See that guy over there,” he asks, pointing to a cook named Tim. “It’s his job not to get me angry.” Tim smiles.
The kids ask what kind of pizzas Morales likes. “I like vegetable pizzas,” he says. “Asparagus, peas, tomatoes…” The kids think that sounds weird. “I drink too much coffee, too,” Morales says. “It’s not good for you.”
The pizza chef gives the pies a quick flash in the upper part of the oven, and Morales starts calling them off. “Who ordered pepperoni, goat cheese, and sausage?” “Me!” “Come and get it!” “Meat-lover! You strike me as a meat-lover. Is this yours?”
“It’s really good” says one of the kids. Another—oh no!—got red peppers. The server apologizes. It’s OK, says the girl. She’ll pick them off.