Upstairs Downstairs

Phyllis Richman / January 2007

A hidden kitchen replete with high-tech "toys" supports its picturesque open counterpart.

Halfway between the White House and Georgetown, a $24 million renovation of Washington D.C.'s Park Hyatt hotel gave birth in June to the Blue Duck Tavern. It was actually a rebirth of Melrose restaurant, so eagerly anticipated that diners were almost waiting at the tables for opening day. They'd been salivating for the return of the best crab cakes in Washington and were impatient for executive chef Brian McBride to feed them again, as he'd been doing for nearly 20 years. He had developed Melrose as one of the capital's top restaurants despite the boring luxury hotel beigeness of the dining room.

Now Tony Chi has designed a minimalist dining room softly gleaming with handcrafted wood. Its expensive simplicity flows right into the wide-open kitchen, a friendly stage set with baskets of produce, jars of preserved peaches and pickled vegetables to counteract the stainless steel, and a wood-burning oven that's fed every hour and a half from a stack of oak and cherry logs. Blue Duck Tavern is the white tablecloth version of a picnic table by a campfire.

Diners enter a few steps away from a small open pastry kitchen fragrant with the caramel aroma of flaky browned apple pies cooling on the counter. When the Gaggenau convection oven fills with baked-to-order cakes, the aromas become ever more difficult to resist. A few feet farther is a bright red Berkel hand-cranked meat slicer surrounded by salami, sopressata, mortadella, and prosciutto, which are served as amuse bouches. Baskets of squashes, potatoes, and apples add color to the scene, and breads contribute their aroma. Teased by appetizers and desserts close enough to snatch a nibble, diners reluctantly follow the hostess to their seats, perhaps to a banquette that's a Windsor bench 29 feet long, fashioned by a Vermont chairwright. Or they might be seated at a bare wood table with graceful modern bentwood chairs, in view of the kitchen, even close enough to inspire occasional conversations between staff and guests.

The centerpiece of this spacious kitchen is a cobalt blue Molteni range, hand-built in France with six open-top burners, two Pitco deep fryers (one with duck fat for the french fries, the other with soybean oil), one flattop, a multipurpose griddle, and three ovens. This festive blue freestanding cooking center looks like a wealthy giant's toy and, in the company of a 27-foot wall's worth of refrigerated drawers and cabinets, the Molteni adds up to enough counter space for six cooks' parallel play. Each station around the range has plenty of drawers, some refrigerated and others heated, and a sink, so the cook can find everything at hand. McBride laid it out so each cook is concentrating on his own zone with little distraction.

At the far end of the kitchen is the second focal point, the wood-burning oven. This picturesque piece of equipment may look rustic but it's actually an Australian import equipped with a temperature gauge to be inserted in the food as well as a readout that displays the oven's interior temperature. Nearly all the main dishes and a quarter of the appetizers are roasted in this gas-assisted wood-burning oven by Doughpro, which is kept at a steady 550°F. Two cooks work the oven at a fast pace, choosing portions of meat or fish from refrigerated drawers, seasoning them, arranging them in individual black steel pans, and setting the pans in the oven. Thus are produced the signature dishes of Blue Duck Tavern: flavorful, impeccable, and precisely cooked ingredients transformed into updated but simply prepared American classics.

Except that they are far from simple.

With one wood-burning oven and a half dozen cooks, how does this kitchen serve as many as 160 covers an evening plus chef's table dinners, lounge snacks, and room service?

"It's all about technology," says McBride.

The answer lies downstairs.

The first hint is the sign-in process. The staffers enter through the basement and sign in with one finger. A computer reads their fingerprint, then they pick up their uniforms in another room they enter with a thumbprint. Their uniforms are equipped with computer chips.

So much for simplicity.

To understand your roasted duck with baked heirloom apple, you'd have to visit the basement kitchen, which is the backstage where three machines form the crucial support for Blue Duck's efficient and picturesque show kitchen. The Rational Self Cooking Center is a $25,000 electronic wizard that stores over a thousand programs for slow cooking, steaming, or roasting. One day it's a convection oven, baking a dozen cakes as quickly as a cupcake; another day it's cooking meat at a delta temperature, programmed for an environment just a few degrees hotter than the final product is meant to be. Furthermore, as chef de cuisine Mark Hellyar recently learned, if the cooked meat is left in the oven at a temperature that will hold it but not cook it further, it will taste aged, and even the degree of "aging" can be controlled.

Then it is ready for a quick searing in the hot wood-burning oven. A portion of duck the Rational precooked can be browned and crisped in a mere 10 minutes and taste as if it were just cooked from its raw state.

Of course, it isn't convenient to do all this double cooking at dinnertime, so the chef must spread the preparation throughout the quieter hours, then maintain the precooked meat's or seafood's fresh taste and juiciness until somebody orders it, sometimes days later. That's the job of the second vital machine, the Turbovac, which vacuum seals the parcooked portions of duck, pork, beef, rabbit, pheasant, or seafood in a plastic pouch. Before each meal enough plastic pouches to feed the expected crowd are opened and the portioned proteins are placed in the upstairs refrigerated drawers, ready for a short sear in the wood-burning oven at pickup. And the end of the meal, unused portions can be re-vacuumed and stored again.

Not only are more and more of Blue Duck's wood-oven dishes brined before being cooked in the Rational, the brines themselves are evolving. By now each brine is different—pink salt for some meats, to impart a rosy color, red wine and Port for venison. And in order to preserve flavor, meat is cooked on the bone, poultry with its skin. The pork is cooked as a whole rack, and the chops are sliced to order before browning over wood. Chicken parts and short ribs are cut from their bones just as they are about to be arranged in their silver cassolettes, garnished with charred tomato or a head of garlic, a small onion or shallot, and a sprig of fresh herbs. After a drizzle from a chrome thermos labeled "red wine Sc" (red wine sauce) or "Ch Sc" (chicken sauce), they are placed under heat lamps hidden beneath the limestone-topped service stations (McBride's idea), where the waiter picks them up.

The third crucial machine in the downstairs kitchen is the Pacojet. Not to be confused with the two Pacojets in the upstairs dessert kitchen, which are used to make ice creams, this downstairs freezer/blender turns meats, chicken, foie gras, and the like into farces to stuff quail or poach as a galantine. Blue Duck's remarkable pea soup is not made from long-cooked dried army-green peas, but from fresh green peas, cooked to order for four minutes and pureed in the Pacojet. At last check, the chefs were experimenting with pureeing sweet potatoes with duck fat, which "gives it a more luxurious mouthfeel," said Hellyar.

Classic and traditional, yet streamlined and modernized—that's McBride's depiction of his restaurant. Fresh and local, direct from the farm—that's the food he seeks. Indeed, wandering into the prep kitchen, one might see a wine dealer or an Amish farmer delivering his specialties. The menu, which changes according to the seasons, gives more information on the sources of the ingredients than their preparation. In fall, wood-fired Tavern steak or slow braised short ribs from Pineland Farms, in Maine, might be preceded by house smoked eel with watercress, crisp potato from Samuel and Sons, in Pennsylvania, and followed by ice cream, hand-cranked before each service. Blue Duck honors the season with young leeks and baby turnips from Pennsylvania's Tuscarora Co-op, chanterelles and royal trumpets from Irwin Mushroom, and game from Shaefer and Four Story Hill Farms, all in Pennsylvania. Despite being known as a grill restaurant, in one month Blue Duck spent more money on vegetables than on any other product.

Unlike McBride's cooking at Melrose, this food is intensely unfancy. The meat and much of the fish is served right from the wood-burning oven, pausing only for a squirt of sauce. The vegetables are just sautéed, braised, or roasted. Side dishes are straightforward garlic mashed potatoes, sweet potato grits, cheddar biscuits, wild rice cakes, or baked beans, or the star of the menu, BDT triple fries. They are, unlike most of the menu, an elaborate preparation, with more steps than french fries commonly know. These thick-cut fries are boiled, dried in a breezy doorway, fried to seal them, refrigerated for a day, frozen in single layers, and then piled on each other and returned to the freezer, defrosted to order, then fried again, in pure duck fat.

Even the dining room service has its hidden high-tech components. Although the cooks are in full view, the waiters communicate with the kitchen electronically, punching in orders on handheld Micros Systems devices, which beam them directly to the vegetable area, the dessert area, the wood-burning oven. In an open kitchen, calling out orders would be unseemly, explains McBride, and even the printers are silent, their unsightliness hidden in baskets on the service counters. Furthermore, with electronic communication, the waiter never needs to leave the dining room.

The service counters, too, are designed to both reveal and hide. Their tops are limestone, gleaming white like counters in the breakfast buffet and the salad station. Underneath are heat lamps, so dishes can be conveniently yet covertly kept warm.

He also can't resist showing off his three Franke Evolution coffee makers. They are so personalized that when they are installed the company sends a specialist to spend a full day in the kitchen programming them, not just to the chef's taste, but for the restaurant's particular coffee beans and various capacities of cups.

All of Blue Duck's cabinetry is easily moved: the service stations, the tall wooden coat closets with mirrored doors. Thus the coat closet is an adaptable room divider, and the chef's table is walled off by the wine cellar—1,600 bottles behind glass.

At the other end of the spectrum, McBride has been trying to grow tomatoes and herbs in the garden surrounding Blue Duck's popular dining terrace. His home-pickled tomatoes—left to develop for three to seven days—are refreshing as well as piquant with vinegar and hot peppers. He loves buying whole goats, calves, piglets, eels: "We like to play around." He's curing his own prosciutto and Virginia ham, and plans to produce his own sauerkraut, then ketchup and steak sauce. He'll certainly find ways for his electronic assistants to help in these experiments.

"It's all about technology," McBride likes to say.

Except when it's not.