Like so many chefs in Houston, Lyle Bento gets around. He’s worked at a wide variety of restaurants including Feast, Stella Sola, Beavers, and The Modular food truck. Since it opened in March, he’s been working on the line at farm to table restaurant Underbelly as part of the team of chefs under the command of Chris Shepherd, the subject of last week's visit to the farmers' market.
Diners that have had the pleasure of visiting Underbelly have gotten a taste of what comes out of this restaurant’s open kitchen. Those who haven't have probably read about it via the countless media coverage. But what no one has experienced is what actually goes on inside this energetic kitchen every night. So please join me as I take you on a behind-the-scenes journey through a typical night’s dinner service, on the line, with Lyle Bento.
Or for those that speak restaurant, mise en place. Upon entering the kitchen, Lyle introduced himself and outfitted me with one of Underbelly’s special-ordered burn-resistant aprons. I have to admit, I was particularly happy to have this kind of protection as I had labored over a kitchen-appropriate outfit for quite a while the night before. My first impression of Lyle was very positive; he was extremely welcoming and outgoing. My anxious desire to learn about his craft was only matched by his enthusiasm to have me onboard for the evening.
Following the introductions to my temporary co-chefs, I was immediately thrown into helping Lyle with what most would consider run-of-the-mill dinner prep activities. Run-of-the-mill at Underbelly, however, includes butchering duck heads and marinating the remaining bodies for Lyle’s contribution to the menu’s nightly specials. For the next hour or two we made several laps between the kitchen, the butcher room, and the walk-in freezer to assemble the necessary ingredients for his three additional plates. As Lyle prepared his station and danced to the 80’s pop music, he explained, “The more you do to prepare, the smoother the service will run.” As I became acclimated to the lighthearted ass-slapping and practical joking environment of Underbelly's kitchen, I knew this moment was the calm before the impending dinner storm.
THE DINNER SERVICE
As the dinner crowd began to fill the dining room, the Peking duck was one of the first orders to come through. As Lyle meticulously prepared the maiden family-style plate, the entire staff watched in awe. The impeccably crispy half duck was perched atop a sizzling serving of Swiss chard and a heap of creamy risotto and fried rice.
When the clock ticked past six o’ clock, the pace of incoming orders accelerated. As I stepped back to minimize my imposition on this well-oiled machine, I noticed the extreme sense of camaraderie amongst those in the kitchen. While each chef had his own dishes of responsibility, everyone kept silent tallies to ensure that no one missed a call. As Lyle plated his dishes, various spoons would reach for samples before they went out. Lyle justified this method; “If a dish is sent back, it’s not just on one of us; it’s on all of us.”
The smooth flow of service was temporarily interrupted as Matthew Pridgen (Underbelly’s general manager and sommelier) approached the front of the kitchen with a stunned look plastered across his face. Apparently, one of the restaurant’s regular patrons requested a wine pairing for the “Lambburger Helper.” Chris and Matthew conceived a playful response for the oxymoronic request: a decanted 40-ounce bottle of Olde English 800.
After the short comedic pause, orders of all shapes and sizes poured into the kitchen, including multiple requests for Lyle’s Peking. Chris authoritatively called to Lyle, “five all day,” to indicate the number of open tickets for the special. In addition to the duck, there was also a rising demand for Lyle’s other dishes. Chris shouted, “A mahi and a wahoo and? another Wahoo; two wahoos all day!” While some chefs would get flustered at a moment like this, Lyle confidently nodded his head to signify that he had kept an accurate count. By the time I processed these were all Lyle’s dishes, he was already searing the three fish, mixing the soba noodles, and “bringing back” the steel coat oats for the newly called-out orders.
When the pace quickened, I got my big break. Lyle immediately put my extra hands to use with very basic but exciting tasks such as plating the pickled gulf shrimp and garnishing the crispy pork empanadas with charred corn salsa. As Lyle focused on catching up with the rush, I became Chris’ protégé expeditor and learned his ways of calling out orders and pushing out plates to the appropriate tables. I even had the chance to fly solo (under covert supervision) as Chris ventured out onto the floor to make his rounds among both the regulars and first-time guests.
THE WIND DOWN
When a container of pre-punched Southern Star Bombshell Blonde beer cans entered the kitchen, I knew it was time for the chef’s nightly celebration of a successful dinner service. That is, shotgunning a cold beer. I was astonished to learn that I was invited to join them in an honor only extended to a few deserving individuals. As the guests of the restaurant cheered the chefs on, I chugged the surge of beer flooding out of the can with Lyle and the rest of my temporary co-chefs. Although I was only there for one night, Lyle and the other chefs felt more like a family than transient co-workers. Even after just one short shift, it was easy to see the amount of teamwork and dedication that is present in the kitchen night after night. While everyone is encouraged to have fun and be creative, there is also an expectation to maintain a level of seriousness and accountability. And while that may seem hard to balance, Lyle Bento has it mastered.
As the last surface was being wiped down, my shift came to an end. And even though my back hurt and I was beyond exhausted, I left with a twinge of jealously that Lyle was able to come back and do it all again the following night.