Working in a kitchen requires a chef to engage more than just the senses of taste, touch, smell and sight. For our Soundbites series, food critic David Hammond visits Cafecito – a popular loop lunch spot that's all ears.
ambi: meat sizzling on the grill
Cafecito opened last year on Congress between State and Wabash. Soon, several Chicago publications pronounced Cafecito's Cuban sandwich to be the best in the city. A Cubano is a wonderful, deceptively simple creation, just ham, roasted pork, Swiss, pickles and mustard, pressed together in French-type bread on a clamshell grill. As he makes me one, Chef Philip Gantous explains how sounds guide the cooking process.
PHILIP GANTOUS: This is the roasted pork, so it's already been seasoned, it's already been roasted in the mojo; it's been marinated for a couple of days in the mojo – the sour orange, the garlic, the onion – for the marinade. Oregano, cumin, lime juice, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, a lot of flavor. Lot of flavors going through it. That's the sound I love. That's a hot grill, hot griddle you know, and I know it's going to give it a little bit of a caramelization and the flavors going to go through it once again and heighten the sandwich throughout.
ambi: meat sizzling on the griddle
GANTOUS: I put a little oil on top of the bread inside the panini press…Now, I'm going to press the sandwich. I don't know if you can hear that. That's the sound of the flavors coming together.
Philip pays close attention to the sounds of his kitchen, what he hears and what he doesn't hear.
GANTOUS: I know that my meat, and my produce and my dairy is all being kept at a good temperature. When I see an employee of mine walk to the refrigerator, subconsciously I know he's already in it, and if I don't see the refrigerator close, have that familiar sound of the suction of the air going in…
ambi: sound of refrigerator closing
GANTOUS: I know that something might be at risk.
HAMMOND: My sandwich is still cooking away. It's starting to smell – and sound! – incredible.
GANTOUS: The bread is getting toasted, you hear the, almost sounds like a little fry, a little frying action going on. It almost sounds like a settling down, a cooling down, it almost sounds like it's bubbling inside.
ambi: cheese on griddle
GANTOUS: Now the cheese has started melting. The cheese is starting to melt, you can see that, but I guarantee you.
HAMMOND: What does a well-done, or perfectly done, Cubano sound like?
GANTOUS: That right there – and you can obviously see that the cheese has been melted in center; you can see that the bread has started to almost develop a type of crackling throughout it – an overdone Cubano is going to be very hard on the outside. It's going to be too much time in the plancha, you know what I mean. It's going to give a crunch, but it's not going to be, if it makes any sense, a “soft crunch” or, uh, a soft crunch is probably the best way to describe it. It's going to be a hard crunch; there's going to be a lot of crumbs going around. This is not, it's a very delicate balance to the bread…if the bread is pressed too much it's not going to have the feeling of a light sandwich. It's going to be too heavy and not enjoyable to eat.
To serve customers efficiently, Philip's servers have to keep their ears pricked for a very important audio cue: the sound of tape being pulled from a dispenser.
GANTOUS: I wrap all my sandwiches in butcher paper. Okay and obviously I finish it with a piece of masking tape…they hear the tape going through the dispenser and they know to come to the kitchen.
ambi: Tape being pulled off the dispenser
Cafecito's dining area is filling up with students from Columbia College Chicago, Robert Morris University, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as world travelers from the youth hostel next door. Philip wraps – and tapes – my Cuban sandwich. I am ready for lunch.
That is the sound of a delicious sandwich.
David Hammond is a contributor to Chicago Reader, Chicago Sun-Times and The Local Beet. He is a founding moderator of LTH Forum.com, the Chicago-based culinary chat site.