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The kitchen dance 

If you've ever cooked any kind of a meal, you know that timing is everything. It's as if you are dancing with the food, each component a partner in a complicated pattern of steps, and one move out of tempo can ruin the whole sequence. It is no good to cook the perfect rare lamb chops if they get cold before their sauce is ready, or if their accompanying vegetables are overcooked and soggy. Not only do you have to prepare each dish beautifully, you have to do it so that they all hit the plate simultaneously. Doing the kitchen dance gets the adrenaline flowing, but when you go into the final spin and do the garnish with a flourish, it is quite a thrill.

You know how demanding doing this dance is with just one meal for your friends and family, but imagine it in a restaurant kitchen with many different meals simultaneously--and each plate destined for some discriminating diner paying top dollar for it. Your reputation and your business are on the line with every meal you make. Your timing needs to be perfect to the nanosecond.

Or in chef-restauranteur Scott Howell's case, make that a Nana's-second. At his Durham restaurant, Nana's, Howell has become especially appreciated for the freshness and delicacy of his cooking, and the relaxed, affable ambience of his dining room. Nana's is one of a handful of great restaurants in this area, and many people say it is the very best, thanks to Howell's creativity, tremendous culinary skills (he was trained at the Culinary Institute of America and apprenticed in some important restaurant kitchens), and, of course, his requirement of balletically synchronized timing in both the kitchen and the dining room of Nana's.

Howell has created and maintained an impeccable reputation among Triangle food fanatics, first with Nana's, which he opened in December 1992, and later with the more casual Pop's, of which he is now the sole owner, although it was founded with two partners. Things at Pop's are moving along just fine, but for much of the past year, Howell's flagship kitchen, Nana's, which has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year since 1993, has been working not on restaurant time but on contractor time. A renovation of the restaurant in the Rockwood Building at the corner of University Drive and the Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard lengthened to six months, then eight. New Year's came and went, then Valentine's Day, and Leap Day before the restaurant was ready to resume the exquisitely timed kitchen dance.

For nearly 10 years, Howell did his magic in a 500-square-foot kitchen, an incredibly tiny space for commercial-scale food preparation, cooking, cleanup and food storage. Even when he enlarged the dining room in a previous renovation, he didn't add on to the kitchen. But with the current expansion the bar and dining areas will seat up to 110 people--so the kitchen just had to grow, too.

When I visited Nana's during the last stages of the renovation, Howell whisked me through the gorgeous cherry and stainless-steel bar area, the new small dining room--tomato red--and the main dining room--soft gold--stopping only to speak to an electrician about just exactly when he would have the pendant lights wired in. Howell was heading to the heart of the matter, the 1350-square-foot kitchen he designed, and when he got there he looked around with the pride and pleasure of an artisan in his workshop. Whipping the plastic drop cloths off a couple of massive $20,000 stoves and talking 90 miles an hour, he demonstrated for me the steps of the chef's dance.

Nana's new kitchen doesn't have a line of stoves in the American style, but is based on the typically European design, with two pairs of stoves back to back, so that the cooks face each other, and the "expediter" can see everything that is going on throughout the kitchen. Howell, of course, takes that position. He cooks himself, but he also watches and directs, as needed, his companion on the fish side of the stove quadrangle, the two cooks on the meat side, those working on appetizers and the arrangement of salads and cold dishes, the pastry chef and the wait staff.

Even though the only other person in the kitchen at that moment is the guy laying the white and brown wall tiles, as Howell describes the scene, the room fills up in my imagination. The orders come in, the cooks spring to action--a poached fish, a baked fish, a broiled fish; a grilled steak, a saddle of rabbit, the vegetables, the sauces--the waiters carry out salads. The dessert chef prepares for creme brûlée and sweet soufflés. Bread is sliced, water poured. Pots clatter. Sauces are reduced, food slipped onto plates, trays go out--while the next food is plated and yet more put on to cook. As the first desserts come out, the waiter readies the cups for freshly made espresso, and the scent of dark-roast coffee mixes with the rich aromas from the stoves.

It is a controlled madhouse, but remarkably quiet, says Howell. "In a kitchen I run, it doesn't get loud," he says. "A kitchen needs to be run with one guy talking. Everybody else is thinking about what they're doing, and there is one expediter."

What goes on in a kitchen like Nana's is incredibly complex--multitasking taken to a mind-boggling extreme. Virtually nothing here is prepared in advance and ladled out when ordered. Everything is prepped for the day's menu, but all the dishes have to be made up as needed. For Howell, pretty good is no good at all: He wants every plate of food to approach perfection, and that means preparing each meal separately.

Say the chef is making a dish Howell was thinking about when I visited: roasted saddle of rabbit, with the legs braised to make a basis for a carrot sauce served with Brussels sprouts roasted with country ham, over a bed of parsnip puree. The rabbit goes in the oven; the sprouts are put in to roast, as well. For the sauce, "you take a raw carrot juice, and maybe some roasted garlic, and reduced meat stock for viscosity--that's what makes a great sauce. You boil, mix to emulsify, maybe add a little olive oil--and set it up on the shelf to keep warm. When your meat's ready, you add a touch of lemon juice to the sauce--that gives it a lift, brightens it up--give it another mix, then pour it immediately and the plate goes out," says Howell. But, of course, that is only one order among many in process simultaneously.

"We've got a million little pots to make the best every time," Howell says. "Little bitty pots--one quart." Without blinking he adds, "That's how the four-star places get their four stars." Now that Nana's is open in its new incarnation, I suspect the time has come for stars. EndBlock

To contact Nana's, call 493-8545.

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