Burn Notice

Categories: Sheehan (RIP)

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This week Jason Sheehan reviews Chutney's. Photo by Mark Manger.

A few years ago, while working in Albuquerque, I made one dumbass move that almost accidentally ended my cooking career -- a full three or four months before I ended it quite deliberately on my own.

It was a Tuesday and things had been going badly all night. It was just one of those days -- bad for no real good reason, a hundred small things going wrong one, after the other after the other. I’d spent most of the night spinning in place, trying to do ten things at once, accomplishing none of them, getting myself further and further into the weeds. And then, around eight o’clock -- just as the second turn was finishing up in the dining room and the third rolling in -- I made a blind, bare-handed grab for the handle of a heavy, thick-bottomed saute pan in which I’d been par-cooking a dozen vegetable sides.

I hadn’t noticed that the guy on the line next to me had, at some point, bumped my pan back a burner so he could dry-fire some chicken. After he finished, he didn’t bother moving my pan back into place and left it sitting there, its handle directly above the open-flame burner. I don’t know how long that handle had been heated in the fire. Five minutes, maybe ten. Enough, in any event, that when I grabbed it I didn’t even feel the burn of the white-hot metal until I’d lifted it and started bringing it over to my board.

I dropped it about halfway across and started screaming.

People say third-degree burns don’t hurt and that’s true. A third-degree burn means you’ve done enough damage to the nerves in the offended area that they’ve just curled up and died. But what does hurt are the second-degree burns that surround the third-degree burns -- the blistered, charred bits of skin neighboring the perfect, shiny-white sear marks where the hot metal actually made contact with the skin. Second-degree burns hurt like a motherfucker even after you’ve hit your knees and plunged your hand into an ice bucket, hurt with a crescendo that seems to have no top -- just a constant, throbbing, rising pain that makes your whole arm buzz and your head go fuzzy and your stomach hurt.

I managed to cook until about nine o’clock one-handed, my ruined left curled into a fist around a chunk of ice and wrapped in a boxer’s glove of side towels and tape. After that, I went home. I didn’t sleep much that night, even under the double-sledgehammer of two Tylenol-codeines cadged off one of my cooks washed down with a couple of Coronas. By morning, my left hand was a claw, the skin so tight that I could barely move my fingers, my palm roughly the color and texture of a strip steak thrown against the door of a furnace. I could actually read part of the brand name of the pan that’d burned me because it’d been stamped in raised letters on the handle.

I had to be downtown by ten to do a live cooking demo for the midday news (a side gig I’d picked up a couple of months prior that had gone better than anyone had expected it would) and then hang around until the broadcast was over so I could tape two more that would show later. I needed to wrangle up supplies, figure out what I was going to be cooking, do my prep (at the station that was a nightmare because their demonstration kitchen was about 90 percent fake, with only two real burners and a cutting board, everything else made out of plywood and spare parts) and be ready to go by eleven so the C camera could record cut-aways of me -- grinning like a simp, pretending to cook in the pretend kitchen -- which would be shown as teasers going into and coming back from the first commercial break. I went live in some dead zone about three-quarters of the way through the broadcast, sandwiched in between the weather and the interview with the guy who owned the dog who could bark the Pledge of Allegiance.

For the live spot, I did a frittata and my witty banter with the anchors was all about how easy something like this was to throw together out of leftovers -- provided, of course, you kept your pantry well-stocked and always had things like cold butter-and-lemon poached chicken breasts, portobello mushrooms and a tin of murderously expensive saffron kicking around. “This is line-cook comfort food,” I explained, the kind of thing white jackets throw together for a midnight snack when shitfaced or just too exhausted to do anything else. The real reason I was doing a frittata was because I’d been able to knock one out fast and early, stash it in the fake oven and pull it out looking all browned and beautiful for the money shot. Also, I’d been able to do it one-handed. It looked okay on TV because the cameraman focused mostly on the food, but if you looked close during the couple of shots where my face was shown, you could see the sickly greenish bags under my eyes, the sweat pouring off me.

For the second segment, I did the wild mushroom polenta I cooked at the restaurant since it looked beautiful, was made entirely out of ingredients that’d been prepped back in my kitchen (and therefore didn’t require too much manipulation on my part) and could be finished inside my three-minute time limit. Everyone knew this was one of the dishes we cooked every night at the restaurant, but that didn’t stop me from reminding the camera thirty or forty more times, saying the name of the place over and over again, wearing my hat with the restaurant’s logo, my chef’s jacket with my name stitched over the pocket. We had to shoot it twice because halfway through the first take, I made a reflexive grab for something with my left hand and collapsed against the fake kitchen counter like someone’d hit me in the back of the head with a brick. The second take was better, and when it was done, I swallowed four Advil with a mouthful of cold coffee and called for a fifteen-minute break that I used to go outside and smoke two cigarettes while trying not to cry.

The third shot was all about grilling steaks. By that point, I was in such pain that I worked with my left hand tucked inside my chef coat, wrapped around a bag full of ice tucked into the waistband of my pants. At best, I looked like a sweaty little Napoleon less the funny hat, at worst like a chronic masturbator, playing with myself while the cameras rolled. I’m pretty sure my grilling segment was never actually shown. When it was done, I almost passed out walking back to my car and had to have one of the producers carry my supplies.

It’s strange, but that experience was what I started thinking about while eating my first, surprising dinner at Chutney’s – which I review this week. It came to me the moment I took my first bite of chef Ravi Chandra’s lamb vindaloo -- something, maybe, about the burning heat of the spices bringing up painful associations, but more likely something about the perfect balance he evinced on a slow night, the bright-edged expertise of complete control. The difference between the food being done at Chutney’s and the food being done at most of the other Indian restaurants in the area is the difference between a frittata put together for TV in a pretend kitchen by a one-handed chef with a codeine hangover and the frittata I was trying to mimic -- the one that real line cooks actually do make for themselves after all the customers have gone home for the night, scavenging all the best bits from the coolers, using all the expensive spices and ingredients that no one has access to at home. It is the difference between a Saturday night polenta for paying customers and a Tuesday afternoon polenta done for show; a steak cooked by a crippled Mick with one hand down his pants and the steaks that actually came off the grill at my restaurant during normal service -- lovely tenderloins, perfectly seared-off, dripping with compound butter.

It is the difference between easy, convenient and possible-under-the-circumstances -- and polished, exacting and right-no-matter-the-circumstances. And while yes, I will be the first one to stand up and defend Denver’s local Indian restaurant community for doing the often beautiful, often delicious, always comforting traditional Indian cuisine that has been the standard for years, so, too, am I glad that someone has come along to take Indian cuisine in a new direction -- to open the doors and let in a little modernity, a fresh breath of luxury. Like the chefs who came before him to take Mexican cuisine out of the taqueria and into the limelight, it is my hope that Chandra and Chutney’s will someday be seen as forerunners of a fine-dining revolution in Denver’s Indian restaurant community. For all the reasons why, check out this week’s review. -- Jason Sheehan



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