This is the 2nd article in a series– #1 (Dolce Veloce) is here.
Restaurant kitchens come in all shapes and sizes, and after my last tour, I wanted to learn more about a big-time operation, a restaurant with an expansive dining room, a large crew of cooks and other staff, and at the eye of the storm, a talented chef managing the kitchen with aplomb.
I was not disappointed.
Wildfire Restaurant in Tysons Galleria is an outpost of a small chain based largely in the greater Chicagoland area. Tucked away on the 3rd floor of the mall (though with its own dedicated elevator from the top level of the parking garage), Wildfire is a location I’d walked by several times when perusing the Galleria’s shops. The restaurant is gently lit, a strong contrast to the bright lighting of the shopping mall, and is resplendent with dark wood and leather chairs throughout. The dining room is sizable and abuts the open kitchen with the hybrid gas/wood-fired main oven, though the staff also works in a prep kitchen a bit further backstage.
When I stopped by recently between lunch and dinner services, I found the Executive Chef, Eddie Ishaq, coolly directing his crew in the prep kitchen and slicing roasted sweet peppers for a special event the next evening (more to come on that in a subsequent post). Chef Ishaq is a Chicago native who earned his culinary degree from Kendall College. Having worked his way up the kitchen staff hierarchy at several Wildfire locations, Ishaq spent a short while away from the company at Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse in Chicago, but in January 2011, he accepted the appointment to the top job at Wildfire’s Virginia location.
Ishaq manages a kitchen with massive output. On a busy Saturday night, he said, his crew will push out more than 800 meals. On Mother’s Day, they’ll serve about 1,800 people between lunch and dinner. The kitchen remains open between lunch and dinner with 4-5 cooks manning their stations, but a busy night will require 12-15 cooks on the line. Ishaq’s crew is 45 strong, but management told me that the cooks make up a little less than one-third of the location’s staff. The Wildfire management team in McLean is transplanted from Chicago, but it takes more than 150 employees to run this 300-seat restaurant. The chef was consistently proud of his cooks when I talked to him, but he also took a moment to praise the bottom rung of the culinary ladder: “Dishwashers have the hardest job in the restaurant. There are six of them. Without them, we’ve got no plates, no silver, nothing.”
Chef Ishaq described his restaurant’s menu proudly: “Our specialty is as a steakhouse, but we have a little bit of everything to satisfy every palate.” He explained that his cooks work especially hard to accommodate customers with allergies: “We get allergy tickets left and right…but we’re here to satisfy – we don’t let people down. If I can do it for them, I will.” With even a small chain restaurant, the chef has a little less control over the menu than he might at a neighborhood store. Chef Ishaq sends ideas up to his bosses quite a bit, but he gets to demonstrate his chops a bit with daily specials. When conceptualizing specials, he said, the single biggest factor is the season, which governs what’s available and if he can get it fresh and cheap. The restaurant also works hard to use local purveyors whenever possible – the chef mentioned a Pennsylvania farm that sends them fresh fruits and vegetables, and another purveyor who sells him “unbelievable” high-quality eggs that he usually moves during brunch in frittatas and sauces. For Easter Sunday alone, he said, they restaurant had ordered 30 dozen eggs, and his staff went through 5 pitchers of Hollandaise sauce.
He also gets a chance to show off at Wildfire’s special events, generally held monthly and described in more detail on the restaurant’s website. He mentioned a recent Scotch tasting and dinner that garnered more than 60 attendees, and he’s currently thinking about some special cocktails and beer for football season. The crew is also planning a pork dinner, with an organic Berkshire hog being raised especially for the restaurant.
Ishaq explained that a day in his restaurant starts with prep lists. His morning crew arrives between 8 and 8:30 – including one cook who spends several hours cutting and blanching potatoes for French fries – and begins the day’s prep lists, including an inventory of everything needed for the day’s service. “We try to make everything fresh daily as much as possible,” the chef told me. “If I have to make up half a batch, I’ll make half a batch.” The menu at Wildfire is a fairly broad one, which demands that the open kitchen waste no space at all when storing cut and portioned fish, meats, garnishes, sauces, and the various other accoutrements of a professional kitchen.
Lunch at Wildfire is, well, pretty wild. Over the course of an hour and a half, tops, the crew will serve about 350 meals. The Tysons Corner lunch crowd appears to be fairly corporate – witness all the office towers in the area – and the customers want to be in and out 30-45 minutes. “It’s challenging when you’re only allowed to have a certain number of cooks on your schedule, but if we need to get our hands dirty, we jump in and knock it out.” Tickets may come in fast and furious, but they go out like clockwork – his cooks are expected to get plates out in ten to fifteen minutes at the most.
Between the lunch and dinner services, some customers will still be around, but his crew is generally working on transition. The cooks are setting up for dinner, the chef is preparing for any private parties, and they’re all prepping for dinner service. At about 4:00, his dinner cooks arrive, check their stations, and will work through dinner until about 11:00. The dinner crowd usually arrives by about 6:30, and will stay until 9. Chef Ishaq laughed as he described that difference from Chicago – the Wildfire locations there will be packed from 3:30 or 4:00 all the way until 9:00, but the Virginia crowd tends to work a little later.
Yet despite the crowds, Chef Ishaq repeatedly told me that he thrives on the pressure. He explained that he focuses even more closely on his plates when he’s busy: “When it starts getting crazy, I want my eyes to see every single dish that goes out. It gets crazy busy, but that doesn’t mean the quality of the food will go down.”
The chef began assembling two of their most popular dishes for me while we talked – a macadamia-crusted Halibut filet served with asparagus, and their signature crab cakes. The fish, cut and breaded during prep, is pan-roasted on an oiled cast-iron skillet in the main oven, which his staff keeps between 575 and 600 degrees. After a bare few minutes and a turn, he added blanched asparagus to the skillet, and assembled the dish on a plate with a lemon-butter sauce. The ease with which he moved, even having a stranger on the line next to him, was fascinating, and his crew’s movements around me that afternoon were seamless. Whether assembling three-layer chocolate cakes with a light, chocolate mousse-style frosting (amazingly rich, yet light in texture), blanching potatoes, making sauces, or otherwise keeping up with the professional kitchen, not a one of his cooks blinked an eye while moving around me. And their discipline doesn’t just extend to strangers in the kitchen: “The key to a restaurant is portions – everything has to be consistent. Working at a restaurant, your eyes have to be open all the time.” Restaurants live and die on their customers’ satisfaction, obviously, and in my experience, a happy customer is one that comes back, orders their favorite dish, and gets it just the way they like it.
The chef hit on another theme I’ve heard from pros in the business: “Presentation is key. If something doesn’t look appealing, there’s a very good chance that nobody’s going to touch it.” The halibut, right out of the oven, was scorching hot and beautifully crisp, with a fantastic nutty flavor. The sauce, a simple lemon beurre blanc, went perfectly with the fish. The asparagus was tender, nicely seasoned, and plenty flavorful – even though it was simply prepared, the fresh produce he uses made a big difference. His crab cakes were gorgeously seared and full of crab flavor, with just a hint of mustard in the sauce. And he must be doing something right with those, because crab cakes Benedict is their most popular brunch dish – quite an achievement for this area, no?
My impression of Chef Ishaq was that of a consummate, yet easygoing professional. He gave orders to his crew during the afternoon prep without raising his voice, and he clearly enjoys his work. Referring again to customers who ask for special dishes, he simply intoned with a smile, “…My job is to make them happy.” In an operation this size, with a crew this large, with so many meals going out the kitchen door at once, it’s refreshing to know that the Executive Chef is that modest.
And with his eye always on the customer, he’ll keep packing them in.
Wildfire is located on the 3rd floor of the Tysons Galleria in McLean.