I have won a fair number of nice things on Twitter. Tickets to one of the Cirque shows in town, a UC basketball game, and Skyline Crosstown Shootout paraphernalia. And of course I am always hoping to win one of Scott Bourne’s killer camera give-a-ways (even it it is never Sony Gear). However, the best contest victory, by far, was winning Virgil Cafe’s “be a schlep for a day” contest. Ironically I had no idea what I had won. I re-tweeted the contest because it was a local restaurant on my to-do list, and I wanted to help them spread the word. However, just before Christmas, Matt let me know I had won. I joked about having won a “major award” (a reference Matt got immediately) but little did I know how major it was.
It took us a while to coordinate our schedules. Primarily the issue was on my end, but we finally hooked up on Wednesday. I showed up around 9:30 in the morning and stayed until about 3 pm. Matt walked me through what a day in the restaurant looks like, and showed me how to do a number of things. I participated in making:
- Hamburger Buns
- Andouille Sausage
I also got to watch the goings-on in the kitchen including the prep work. Matt is quite the savvy marketer, so he actually filmed the day, and has promised/threatened that it will appear on his web site. I will provide links when they are available, because I have no pride.
He started me on the bread. He already had the dough going, and I participated in working the dough between the various rises. I have baked bread in the past with my Grandma, but never in these amounts. That day he was baking Focaccia, baguettes, and his ciabatta hamburger rolls. The baguettes and hamburger buns use the same dough, but the Focaccia is different. He makes his baguettes/ciabatta with some whole wheat flour.
I learned the proper techniques for folding the dough between rises, and portioning and preparing for the oven. I brought my nice Alpha dSLR to take pictures, and it will be obvious the shots I took with it, but many of the shots I just took with my Droid X.
I was a huge fan of the Focaccia. Matt said he serves it as the bread for most entrées. The smell was intoxicating before it was even backed, with Herbs de Provence and Parmesan cheese on top:
The hamburger is served on a ciabatta hamburger bun. It uses the same dough as the baguette, but is formed differently. At this point I had decided I would be going for the hamburger for lunch. I would change my mind.
And of course you have the baguettes. They do their final rise on a canvas cloth (I have forgotten the term Matt used). The top is sliced before they are placed on the stones in the oven:
Here is the result after baking:
The bread was delicious. I complemented it a number of times, as did Mario the videographer, and Matt’s response was essentially that it’s fresh, and that’s why we thought it was so good. I appreciated the humility, and fresh is awesome, but that wasn’t the whole story. He also told me that he has been baking all his own breads for almost four months now. Sharing some insight into the business, he admitted that part of his motivation is to save money. So not only does he have a better product to serve his customers, but it helps his bottom line as well. I am a HUGE Shadeau breads fan, but I thought his bread was great.
The other task he put me to was making the in-house Andouille Sausage. You now how they always say you don’t want to see sausage made? Not true, at least not at Virgil’s. Matt was with me the whole way (and making sure I followed proper techniques, including sanitation) but I worked it from beginning to end. They start with bone-in pork butt that they grind on-site, add their spice mixture, put in natural casing and smoke.
Matt demonstrated how to de-bone and chop on the first pork butt, then left the second to me. I think it took me about twice as long, which I consider quite the accomplishment. After that it was time to setup the grinder. That process is very easy to pick up, even for me.
He mixed the spices. The mixture is heavy in garlic, and has a nice amount of paprika and pepper flakes. I was surprised that mik goes into the mixture, Matt says it helps to bind it. I have never made sausage, and mixing 15 lbs of cold ground pork with the spice mixtures was not the most pleasant part of the day, but I got through it. Your hands get very cold, very fast.
The next stage is the casing. They use natural casings, and fortunately this stage involved me assisting one of Matt’s cooks Brennan. I got to watch as he pulled out and untangled a casing (which for the uninitiated is an intestine). He had to carefully straighten it out, and fill with water to rinse out the salt. He set up the tool, and I started cranking the plunger that fed the sausage. Matt made sure I got to see both sides of the equation as I worked the other end of the process. I was surprised that Brennan said it was often a one-man job. Not sure I could pull that off. He complemented my technique a matter of minutes before I let the casing break. I had almost made it the whole way. It was easily fixed, and he said it happens some times.
After that we hung the sausage on the rack to prepare it for the smoker.
They smoke it until it reaches an internal temperature of 220 degrees. Here is a shot of the sausage after smoking.
Words cannot express how good this smelled. In fact, the whole kitchen was intoxicating. Matt said they make their pastrami in-house every other day. I was not there on a pastrami day, I would have liked to see that.
Fruits of My Labor
To wrap things up, Matt made up a nice plate of the results for the three of us to sample (myself, Matt, and Mario the videographer). There is nothing quite like eating a plate of freshly made breads and sausage. And here I am finally back to the real camera:
This was a great experience, and has probably forever poisoned any future reviews of Virgil’s Cafe for me. I love the place. I did not know what to expect from the experience, but Matt could not have been a better host, and his crew is great. They were always encouraging, and helpful.
So after all that, it was time for lunch. As I mentioned earlier, I was poised to order a burger, but I had heard Doug the cook complain to the wait-staff that the special of the day, a Patty Melt, was better than the burger. So I felt compelled to listen to the cook and I went with that. It is served on their own house-made rye. I don’t even really like rye, but I was determined to let the guy that actually cooks for a living, give me his best shot. I am discovering that you rarely go wrong with this approach. I have only one criticism for this sandwich. It is TOO big.
It is a burger, with Cheddar and Swiss and killer grilled onions on their rye bread. And it is a hit. Matt told me earlier that he lets his cooks come up with some of the lunch specials. and that just goes to prove not only how smart Matt is, but also how talented his staff is. This needs a permanent place on the menu. It came with their house-made chips (are you sensing a house-made trend here). The second-half of the sandwich heated up very nicely. It is the second-best patty melt I have ever had. The best? Oh, that would be the first-half I ate at Virgil’s.
On top of the experience, Matt provided me with a chef’s coat for the day (and sent me home with it) and a very generous gift certificate as “Schlep pay”. So, so unnecessary. I would pay him for this experience in a heartbeat. I have learned that he also offers cooking classes on the weekends occasionally. I SO plan on being there.
One of things I heard about Virgil’s before coming was that the Pastrami was excellent. I am not a big pastrami fan, but my wife is a bit of a pastrami snob. She has not liked any pastrami that much in Cincinnati, so I asked them to wrap one up to go. Well, at home that night she started the oven to warm it up, unwrapped it to try a little. Then a little more. Then a few more bites, and finally she turned off the oven and finished it cold. Well, half of it. It is huge. After finishing it her only comment was “Best thing I have eaten in a long time.” So, be sure to check out the pastrami sandwich.
I will give a more traditional review later. I didn’t get much farther than the bar area. The dining area looks very nice, and the food is created with a lot of skill and passion. They start with great fresh ingredients, and end up with great results. You definitely need to check them out. They aren’t far past another Bellevue favorite, Schneider’s Sweet Shop.
The reviews on Urbanspoon are good, 93% like it, which just goes to prove that around 7% of the Urbanspoon reviews are worthless. OK, so maybe they hit it on a bad night.