A Day In Court

For all the pomp surrounding the opulent Hilton Netherland Plaza, Chef Todd Kelly can be very modest. In fact the entire army occupying Orchids' multi-level labyrinthian kitchens are completely unassuming, perhaps even unaware, of their rockstar status. During the taping of this thing (whatever you want to call it), I was introduced to people that were not war-wearied soldiers threatening to shoot you where you stand if you slowed them down, as I had feared. If there's anything to be cautious of, it's that they're brigands - lying in wait to ambush you with their unsuspecting chill, usually in the form of a nosh.

Even the most seasoned kitchen veteran would be forgiven for becoming overwhelmed at the sheer scale of the restaurant's back of house. The narrow halls of the historic Carew Tower twist and climb like veins throughout the art-deco monolith. Roam enough hallways and turn enough corners, and you may discover a locked door to an unlabelled room. In some cases, that door may reveal something as wholly expected as a balcony herb garden. Others reveal nice surprises, like a converted climate-controlled storage closet now home to carefully procured goat's milk cheese aging in ashened rinds. Or you could find the craziest of the crazy, like a low set of stairs that lead to the roof, which houses a fully-staffed bee colony for their honey program. The sound of jingling keys becomes borderline pavlovian, as each door opened reveals a modern playground of bacterias, cultures, fermentation, and other living things.

The kitchens and prep areas themselves overflow with their own multitude of in-house preparations. Tucked away in every usable space, you will find things dehydrating in the stable warmth above the cooking stations, racks of moulard ducks hanging in the highest parts of the walk in, or whole hams curing in bins of salt. Every spare speed rack in every back corner is home to a collection of custom chocolate transfer sheets, gelling agents, and highly specialized machinery. Even with an excess of square footage, very little remains unused.

From the daily preparations to the wildest shot in the dark experiment, everything feels kinetic and alive. The rows of stainless tables that greet you in the prep kitchen area are overtaken by rolls of handmade pasta sheets one minute, meticulously cleaned and spotless only a moment later, groaning under the weight of hundreds of banquet dishes the next. This constant evolution is engrained in the nature of Orchids. An argument could be made that their well-tuned kitchen is itself a seasonal ingredient.

So with all the dedication it must take to keep up even a modicum of normality or routine, sacrificing time and manpower for some of these more extravagant projects is particularly curious to me. Surely there are a few things that could make life easier without sacrificing quality or dogma. Why the hell go through all the trouble with, say, a rooftop hive, given the abundance of excellent local beekeepers and sources of honey in the area?

Todd - an avid early-morning runner, I hear - has no problem identifying the principle behind some of his kitchen's more wilder exercises. "I just don't know any different," he says, shrugging his shoulders matter-of-factly. Turns out there is no "big" answer. He and the countless sous chefs willingly experiment in anything that begets independence and exorcises stagnation. The journeys both long and short are, quite simply, everything. To them, this pursuit nourishes the soul of the cook as much as the food they nourish their guests with.

Speaking of soul, or heart, or whatever word you choose to define life itself, The Unbreakable Megan Ketover is filled to the brim, dammit. I am certain she has had bad days before, but dark could not escape the light of the Ketover grin on the particular day I visited.

She has every excuse to be happy, as the overseer of a vast and iconic pastry program. The middle and end of each day in the Ketover kitchen overflow with the morning's spoils: bavaroises and crumbles, cocoa nib meringues, endless racks of crunchy sweets and perfectly-springed brioche. How could one be surrounded by such riches and have any time at all to indulge an ill temper?

I envy the baker or pastry chef, as I fantasize about a life in which every day begins with the making of bread. For me, entering the pastry kitchen of Orchids was like crossing the threshold into the Holiest of Holies. Standing there dumbstruck, inundated with the vividness of color, the heat from the massive oven, the hum of tempering chocolate - there was no leaving that place feeling a bit inspired.

Sweets are often thought of as simply punctuation, an accompaniment. That may be arguable in the grandiose scale of a tasting menu, but the elements of Megan's desserts and mignardises create bold statements of their own. The arrangements are so stunning, it almost breaks your heart to eat them. It's a clever reminder not to take things so seriously, to enjoy simple pleasures, like a double-dare to mess up those tall tuilles and perfect quenelles. They demand nothing less than your complete, mother-fudging happiness.

This kind of emotional freewheeling is a big part of the ethos of Orchids at Palm Court. Anyone can relate to the pleasure of eating good food, but Todd himself hesitates to use the word "approachable" to describe their cuisine. Even with the aid of the rapidly-maturing Midwest palate, he's fully aware of a certain breed of eater that can be alienated by things like offal.

Rather than resting on hard-lined ideology, he takes to the task of education with great intent and an almost mathematical care. His signature juniper-brined venison loin, for example, is a nod to more humble cuisine, while the addition of braised chestnuts, a sweet spice gel, and whipped Kentucky sorghum is the result of three years of thoughtful refinement. While a seasoned eater might literally drool at the rare opportunity to sample beef cheeks at Orchid's, Todd crafts a menu that is vigilantly conscientious of all, not just some, of his diners' palates.

That's not to say he doesn't have his own opinions. He hates your "my grandma taught me how to make gnocchi when I was 9" story. Don't dare offer him gazpacho under the wrong conditions. When asked about actions in his kitchen that would piss him off, he responded with "how much tape do you have?" Press him on the topic of fine dining, and he will speak with frank irreverence of the Trotter and Keller ilk. He has this smirk I imagine haunts his cooks - a silent expression worth a thousand curse words. As chefs go, the collected and casual can be the most intimidating.

For example, when he asked me without warning if I liked Skyline, I had a sudden and complete panic attack. What do you mean "like?" Am I undergoing some sort of kitchen litmus test? Would I be banned for life for answering wrongly? Oh god - did he see my love-letter tweets to the McDouble? I unfortunately cannot report on Todd Kelly's actual opinion of Cincinnati-style chili, because I fell to my knees and wept from the anxiety before he could answer.

This is a problem with me and not with Todd Kelly.

If Todd can be summed up, he's a confident entertainer. He'll be the first to share a dram from his secret stash of very rare (think half-century and even older) whiskeys and gins, or ask you to guess the weight of the monstrous prime roast being weighed in the aging room. Even when considering his own accomplishments, you may get a humble brag, but it is quickly followed by a question. He, like Megan, is more interested in you: your likes, dislikes, intense hatreds and salacious passions.

I was able to spend a few hours filming while he and the staff chipped away at various prep, from some pre-planned dishes to some off-the cuff daily tasks. Every conversation with Todd was bookended with an inconspicuous probing. At the mere mention of my love for making pork skins (which anyone who knows me can attest to) I must have made an entry in my personal file at Orchids, because as we later prepared to do a scene in the service kitchen, a healthy-sized bowl of spicy, just-made, gloriously-crunchy chicharrones greeted us at one of the passes. Complete with Sriracha and sour cream to dip. These simple, brief, but personal gestures are not exceptions for Todd and his staff, but the cornerstone of his character and his restaurant.