Behind the scenes at Jezebel

2015 UPDATE: Restaurant Jezebel has closed
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 01.31.13
Running a restaurant is never just about the food, and a few hours into my shift in the kitchen at Parind Vora’s Restaurant Jezebel, the floor manager from Vora’s adjoining Bar Mirabeau tells him that a car has veered off West Sixth Street and smashed into a carful of Mirabeau customers who’d just retrieved their car from the parking valet out front. Nobody’s hurt, but the customer’s car is totaled, and the other driver is doing the DUI dance for police, a process that turns Jezebel’s front windows into a pulsing light show of red and blue for almost 45 minutes.
Vora doesn’t get involved in the details, because the valet service is a separate contractor. Still, he’s lucky it’s not one of those nights a customer’s Italian supercar is parked out front. Or his own for that matter, a Ferrari from the “Magnum P.I.” era. When one is named among Austin Monthly’s Most Eligible Bachelors, one must keep up appearances.
I know Vora because I interviewed him in person after a fire wrecked his old Jezebel on Congress Avenue in 2010. The face time cost me my anonymity at the new Jezebel, which reopened on West Sixth Street in October 2012, but it gave me backstage access to the rebirth of a restaurant, including spending a shift in the kitchen. In the weeks before and after that kitchen shift, I visited Jezebel twice to finish the review I never got to write for the American-Statesman. (Read that review here)
My big kitchen contribution? I spend an hour pushing a liquid reduction of spinach and herbs through muslin, saving not the filtered moss-water but the sharp green chlorophyllic marrow it leaves behind. The process turns a six-pound bundle of greens into six ounces of “intense herb puree” (at left). The rest of the time, I walk pots and plates to the dishwasher, taste boiling hot pan sauces and dodge the crossfire traffic of working cooks. On the line tonight: chef Vora, seconds Frederick Carneiro and Nelson Eguia, with Vanessa Wade on desserts and Tanya Bowyer on breads.
As I jockey for a view, the team assembles duck with raspberry coulis, lamb shank nestled in pickled butternut squash, halibut with red-pepper reduction over pumpkin puree, foie gras with scallops and hearts of palm. They fry cockscomb for a textural contrast. They cauterize every fresh cut of meat with salt and pepper and match the colors and textures of vegetarian plates to act in visual accord with the other plates on the table. Beets take the place of ruby venison. A splash of black tea replicates the tannic pull of animal stock.
By his estimate, Vora has turned out 700-800 different dishes since Jezebel opened. By inviting his guests to indulge their dietary agendas, he opens up a nightly Pandora’s doggie bag of eccentricities, contradictory philosophies, allergies and WTFs. Do you object to sweetbreads or foie? What about game meats? Any food allergies we should know about? Do you eat raw fish? What’s your spice tolerance? Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?
More than once, Vora says he’s the only game in town for vegan haute cuisine. In that case, he’ll have his hands full with Guest 1 at Table 13, the pescetarian vegan. (Animals yes, just none of the cute ones.) Plus these caveats: No salmon, no mackerel, no deep-fried anything, no turtle, no peanuts, no iodized salt. Meanwhile, the other guest at Table 13 “will eat everything.” Except for squid, octopus, mushrooms or raw meat. But raw fish is OK. Go!
(TOP: Restaurant Jezebel chef and owner Parind Vora explains a dish to the front-of-house staff. ABOVE, from left: Sauces, purees and stocks wait their turn for one of the 60 dishes that will go out in one shift; an order ticket spells out the do's and don'ts for each table, in this case calling for vegetarian on one side, while the other side can't eat grains or dairy; dishes ready to go out.)
It’s like every night is a test, and it’s never multiple choice. Always essay questions. I watch Vora dress four plates of pan-seared foie gras with crawfish, pomegranate seeds, rosewater and French horn mushrooms. Then I watch him toss those four plates aside, because he’s forgotten that one of the people at that table can’t eat shellfish. He can’t just keep three of the plates warm while he remakes the fourth, because they would wilt under the heatlamps. Well, that and the fact that he doesn’t believe in heatlamps. Nor even have them.
Same thing when somebody at the table leaves for the bathroom. If the plates are just about to go out, they get 86-ed and remade so all the plates can hit the table hot at the same time. None of that thing where “it’s like magic the way my food shows up the minute I leave the room.” To the staff go the spoils when that happens. That foie dish? It’s not just the lush custard gluttony of the fattened liver, it’s the way you can taste the elusive sweet velvet scent of a rose, like an edible version of infatuation.
A question for Vora: How have people responded to your dress code requiring men to wear jackets? The internet was apoplectic. “The ones who hate it on the internet, they’re not eating here. It raises the bar of the dining experience for everyone concerned in the room. That’s why I’ve stuck to my guns on that, and 99.9 percent of our customers are for it. And 100 percent of their wives are.”
When the courses are ready, Vora calls the front-of-house staff to the broad kitchen window before they run the plates to the table, where they’ll drop every dish in front of every diner at the same time, with the muted dinner-bell clang of china on linen. He describes each dish like a wedding vow they’re expected to repeat to the guest, for better or for worse.
Halfway through the shift, Carneiro pulls a beef tongue in full Lonesome Dove glory from its braising pot and butchers it to make tacos for the crew with avocado and corn tortillas fresh out of the fryer. Carneiro is lethal with a blade, and he fillets a chicken on the fly, separating perfect breast pieces in a flash. He’s a bear of a man with a biker’s bandanna, and he rolls with easy authority, calling back to the expediter, “Table 14, course three, heard.”
It was Carneiro who held down the tiny kitchen at Vora’s now-closed East Side restaurant called Braise when the boss was between projects. Now he’ll be running the Bar Mirabeau kitchen during lunch. Eguia will handle Mirabeau’s dinner shift, but tonight he’s Vora’s primary backup at Jezebel, staying calm even when the boss gets barky: “I need that over here. Todayyy.” Eguia is a master of Jezebel’s signature plate-decorating flourishes made with squeeze bottles of mango and raspberry puree. Eguia tries to teach me, but all I can do is make palsied EKGs on a pair of $70 bone china plates before I settle on orange and crimson dots to get the dish out already.
(From left: Vora and assistant Nelson Eguia assemble plates, including Jezebel's signature squiggles of mango and raspberry sauces; pastry chef Vanessa Wade personalizes a chocolate cake made from avocado, egg yolks, agave syrup and cocoa for a couple celebrating their wedding.)
Running pastry that night, Vanessa Wade whips up a vegetarian chocolate mousse for a couple celebrating their wedding day. She turns guacamole, egg yolks, cocoa and agave syrup into a rich block of mahogany inscribed with icing and surrounded by rose petals. The kitchen will go through a shower of rose petals that night, and the server who bought the bouquet takes her reimbursement in wine: something less fruity and — this is just too perfect — less floral than the reds she’s been drinking lately. Wade worked with Vora’s pastry chef Michelle Antonishek at Gramercy Tavern in New York, and her other magic trick for the night is a trio of teacup souffles that rise just as the dessert course comes due, and she slips into a clean chef’s coat to make the tableside presentation herself.
There’s bread to bake for Jezebel and Mirabeau, and Tanya Bowyer weaves through traffic to work the floor mixer and proof pans of ciabatta and rolls for that night and the next day. She’s the last one in the kitchen after shift until the night porter comes to scrub the place down. The cleanup starts even as the last course before dessert clears the window. Carneiro and Eguia wrap pan after pan in plastic wrap, folding under and over to form spill-proof seals, using Sharpies to date and identify the dozens of sauces, purees, reductions and proteins that went into more than 60 dishes.
Another question for Vora: You could have reinvented yourself after Jezebel burned. Now you’re back on the line like a 25-year-old chef. Why? “I live my life in the kitchen. Everything else, to me, is theoretical. At the old Jezebel on Congress, I was working probably 30 percent of my capacity. Here, there’s times we run up against the rev limiter. You have to. We create something that is a lot more than the sum of the ingredients. Even if I’m having a bad day, it’s not a bad day, because I’m doing what I love.”
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 Related story: A review of Restaurant Jezebel