Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Todd Gray's Muse at the Corcoran - Vegan Brunch & My Experience

UPDATE: This restaurant has permanently closed.
In all the time it has taken to become a discerning self-proclaimed foodie, I had never set foot in the kitchen of a restaurant. But, all of that changed a few months ago with the introduction of the monthly vegan brunch at Todd Gray's Muse at the Corcoran. I was given the opportunity to work side-by-side with Todd Gray and his chef de cuisine, Scott Gallegos, to prepare the dishes for the brunch and, let me tell you, it has completely changed my perspective.

Scott Gallegos, chef de cuisine

On this particular Sunday morning, I met the Chef, Scott, and his staff at 8 a.m. in the kitchen. Much of the preparation had already been completed the previous day so now we just had to bring it all together. My first task was to prepare the vegan deviled eggs. The "eggs" had already been molded and my job was to hollow out a portion of each egg, then pipe the "yolk" mixture into each one using a pastry bag. Once the yolks were in, I then topped each one with some vegan caviar (Cavi-Art). This is a meticulous task that takes me over an hour as I prepare over 100 vegan eggs. Once complete, Chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray arrive. Chef (Todd) immediately starts preparing dishes in the kitchen while Ellen holds a "front-of-house" meeting with her staff. The "front-of-house" staff are the servers who interact with the guests in the restaurant.

What is amazing to me is that while Todd Gray has many, many years of experience with vegan cuisine, his chef de cuisine, Scott, is quite new to this. Together, they create these incredible menus and on the day of the brunch, it all materializes. They often don't even test the recipes ahead of time -- they just veganize the recipes they know well or think up completely new recipes and it works out. This is especially impressive considering that they are not trained vegan chefs, rather, they are just great chefs. So it is impressive, but not surprising, as great chefs can do just about anything.

Immediately, we realized we only had a couple hours until brunch started at 11 a.m. The time-crunch was on. I began placing a small amount of the black mission fig mixture into each crepe, then rolling them up tightly so that they may be baked right before brunch. Todd decided that he really liked the mission fig mixture and wanted to put some of it out as a topping for the banana bread so he took a bowl of it out to the buffet. I continued rolling my crepes while Scott directed the kitchen and began preparing pancakes on the griddle.

The kitchen is located inside the Corcoran Gallery of Art so there are many limitations to the type of kitchen equipment they can use. They have to be sure there isn't too much smoke so it doesn't damage the artwork and the kitchen is frankly just too small to have a large stovetop. So, the chef and his staff have to work with a portable griddle that can only cook six pancakes at a time, a portable deep fryer that can only cook four bite-size burgers at a time, a portable range with one burner, and a large commercial oven. Yeah, really. So, to put on a brunch of this magnitude takes a lot of preparation and I can tell you firsthand that things get pretty hectic once the guests arrive.

A few minutes before the first seating, we get all of the food in the buffet servers and place them in the dining room. Then, the craziness really begins. Immediately, the guests devoured all of pancakes and we had to prepare more.

Then, the barbecued tofu that was atop of the sweet corn salad had disappeared so we had to prepare more in the oven. At the same time, the vegan cheese and potato croquettes were running low. Oh, my! It was go-go-go only 10 minutes into the brunch. Then, everyone wanted the passed summer vegetable and black bean burgers served with tamarind sauce so we were cooking them to-order as well. This continued for the first hour.  Then, at some point, we were running low on the black mission fig blintzes and had to make the decision to save the remaining blintzes for the second seating, otherwise, the guests coming at 12:45 p.m. wouldn't even get to try them.  We were also short some of the filling as Chef had put it out for the bread so we had to think on our feet!  So, for the second seating, they got to try both black mission fig blintzes and roasted vegetable blintzes with vegan cheese.

What's funny is that they have to prepare about twice as much food for the vegan brunch as they do for their regular brunch because vegans just love good food!  When asked why they eat so much, I explained that we don't often get the opportunity to enjoy a gourmet brunch and whenever we see items we aren't sure we'll ever get to try again, we have to try them all. True?

Seeing how much work it is in the kitchen as well as how hectic it can get in the front-of-house really has given me a whole new perspective. For the July brunch, we were short a couple people and it was pretty chaotic. It made me realize how much harder it is on the staff when even just one person doesn't show up for the day. In the past, I might have heard my server say they were short-staffed, but I never really realized how much more that meant he/she had to work to serve all of the guests.

I will always expect great service and timely food preparation, but my experience working in this kitchen has given me a new understanding and respect for how hard these individuals have to work to make it all run smoothly. At the end of the brunch at 2 p.m., I was exhausted. My feet were killing me, I was sore from leaning over the crepes and rolling them for so long, and I was hungry. Luckily, I was able to try some of the items and I must say that the black mission fig blintzes and the summer vegetable and black bean burgers were my favorites. Other items that were delicious included the farro salad with heirloom tomato and lemon citronette and the pancakes with summer berry compote.

It is no secret that this city is lacking good vegan brunch options and for Ellen and Todd to take such a risk as to hold a monthly 100% vegan brunch is commendable. I'm proud to support it and everyone else will as well. The last two brunches were completely sold out so the word is definitely getting out. And from what I have heard, people are still talking about those blintzes!

If you take anything away from my story, just be understanding when you see that a server at any restaurant is serving more tables than he/she can handle or when the food takes a bit longer than you might have expected. I can assure you that the staff is working as hard as they can and your patience and understanding will really make that person's day. In the meantime, I'll see you at the vegan brunch at Todd Gray's Muse at the Corcoran on Sunday, September 23. It'll be a special VegFest Celebrity Brunch--more about that to come.

Todd Gray's Muse at the Corcoran
500 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 639-1786

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. The background here (especially about the limitations of the kitchen) goes a long way in explaining why our experience in July was so poor. It was unfortunate that both the food and service were terrible the day we went. Perhaps we'll give it another shot in the future!