In my first memory of now Executive Chef Natalie Bidinger, she is perched atop a 6-foot, double stacked convection oven, shoes off, Technicolor socks at the end of long, often times ungainly legs; her torso obscured by a stainless steel vent hood. She reminded me of a strange culinary chimney sweep accompanied by the sound of relentless scrubbing coming from within.
“Do you do that often?” I asked.
“Of course,” she replied, slightly out of breath, “It’s the only way to clean them right.”
This story is endemic of her personality as a cook. Chef Bidinger, even back then, was endlessly energetic and positive, the kind of leader who clearly wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. As I returned to The Pearl for my most recent visit, I was curious to see if that remained true.
I arrived at the restaurant at 9 AM, about an hour before opening. It’s a Saturday, the Arnold Classic is in full swing a block away and Gallery Hop is that evening. When I arrive, things are already in full swing. Line cooks, in pressed white jackets and newsboy caps, furiously prep brunch mise en place in their cramped galley kitchen, the smell of bacon thick in the air, set to a soundtrack of Blink 182 and Jimmy Eat World. Keeping tempo with the music is the staccato rhythm of knives on cutting boards punctuated every now-and-again by the “whoosh” of oil igniting as a pan of mirapoix is flicked and toasted over an open flame.
Downstairs, in the labyrinthine basement prep kitchen, the music is Norteño and Pasito Duranguense. The music plays over the trill and titter of rapid fire Spanish from the morning prep cooks. The smell of smoked meat is thick as the cooks prepare house-made sausages for the Bangers and Mash. The cook’s knife flashes in the light as it arcs and glides over vegetables as he works his way through a mountain of red peppers, leaving his cutting board with rust colored stains. Another cook stands over prep sink, a case of Chesapeake Oysters off to her left. As fast as she can the oysters go under the running water where she scrubs them with a thick bristled brush. Back upstairs, service staff and bartenders set tables and put the finishing touches on the immaculate dining room, making sure that every last detail is just so, all in anticipation of a busy morning.
Around noon, with brunch already underway, Chef Bidinger arrives at the restaurant, eagerly bursting through the High Street entrance. Dressed in a sharp black chef coat, with her name embroidered on the breast, she begins excitedly greeting everyone she sees, be they guest or fellow employee. From the second she arrives you can tell that she is a very important component in this well-oiled machine. After a quick check in with senior staff, including Sous Chef Danny Zimmerman and General Manager Kelly Gordon, Chef Bidinger immediately launches into her work. I have witnessed a particular brand of absenteeism in a lot of chefs that results in a “hands off” approach to running a kitchen. This couldn’t be further from the truth for Chef Bidinger.
Carried on her tall frame, Bidinger appears to be tailor made for the cramped and confined spaces of The Pearl. She weaves in-and-out of store room aisles and between busy line cooks, checking production, putting away heavy boxes of supplies, and, in a few lithe gestures, sorting out the chaos of her busy kitchen. Her movements, which in more unguarded and personal moments can seem flailing, are now graceful, strong, and confident.
At 1 PM, after a morning filled with various administrative duties, Bidinger is joined by her second-in-command, Sous Chef Melissa Meola. They are perfect foils for one another; where Bidinger is tall and effervescent, Meola is shorter and more stoic. Where the former is a practical manager of people and resources, the later is an artistic and creative force in the kitchen. Chef Bidinger is the consummate collaborator; Meola the competitor, as evidenced by recent wins in both a citywide cooking competition, as well as a one-on-one Knife Fight bout. Together these two make up the left and right hemispheres of The Pearl’s culinary brain.
After a quick briefing, the pair immediately begins work on the day’s butchering, which, at a restaurant as busy as The Pearl, can be a truly Herculean undertaking. Under the fluorescent lights of the prep kitchen, these two make quick work of heavy cases of chicken, fish, and other meat, breaking down these cuts with the skill of surgeons. The two butcher for over an hour, neither stopping her work for a second, aware that every moment counts on a day like this.
After the butchering, they move on to assist the kitchen in the transition from brunch service to dinner. Armed with a clipboard, each chef works her way down the line, checking and re-checking that everything is where it should be. Around this time, the night cooks begin to arrive, each one warmly greeted by Chef Bidinger. Before being sent on their way, the chefs provide each cook with a word of encouragement or a clap on the back, ensuring that everyone is fired up for dinner service.
At five o’clock, the senior staff gathers the entire culinary and service teams together for “Block Talk,” their daily pre-shift meeting. The two chefs, flanked by GM Gordon, disseminate any pertinent information to the staff as well as reviewing the specifications for menu items. It is moments like this that Bidinger’s prowess as a leader is most apparent. She is equal parts teacher and cheerleader, drawing each staff member’s attention into focus while simultaneously transmitting her infectious energy to the group. To close the meeting, the chefs lead the assembled team in a cheer of “1…2…3…BIG THREE”, a reminder to care for the restaurant, their guests, and each other.
At this point, Chef Bidinger moves to her position in front of the pass window, framed by bright, white-hot lamps and a gleaming rail rapidly filling with tickets. Meola moves onto the line, tightening her apron strings and putting on her game face. Before the dinner rush begins, Bidinger takes the time to address each cook, looking them in the eye and asking them if they have everything they need. She can also be seen darting back-and-forth from the bar with large glasses of ice water, one for each member of her crew. This ritual, born of respect for the demands of line work and respect for each individual, will continue throughout the night.
Nurturing respect and caring between chef and cooks is important in any restaurant, and none more so than The Pearl, which works on a “call” system. As orders come into the kitchen, only Chef Bidinger will see the tickets. It is the cook’s responsibility to listen for her call to first “fire” a steak, fish, or other menu item, and then, a few minutes later, to “sell” that item. Without a foundation of trust in each other this kind of system will not work. As I sit and watch service, it is apparent the Chefs Bidinger and Meola have fostered a great deal of trust with each of their cooks, as the entire dinner period rolls on without a hitch. There is no drama, no shouting or anger. Only the even-toned and staccato calls of Chef Bidinger can be heard above the hurried sounds of the line.
“Fire burger, drop those fries, and pick up a spoon bread!” she calls in rapid succession.
“Yes Chef!” comes the reply.
And so it goes into the night.
The odds of finding a pearl in any given oyster are 1 in 12,000 or .008%. In my experience, the odds of finding a true leader in the kitchen are equally slim. And while the pantry cooks at The Pearl, who shuck hundreds of oysters a night, have yet to find anything fit for a jeweler, consider their luck in finding not one, but two great chefs.