Ode to the Old School—Tableside Caesar
With Larry van Aalst, Caesar veteran.
August 17, 2015
Shouting out the campiest, ceremony-iest, pain-in-the-can-unless-you’re-watching-it-iest mainstays of old-school food and drink service—every week. This edition: the mighty Caesar.
Full disclosure: Larry van Aalst was the one who made me my first tableside Caesar.
It was always done in exactly the same way, every time we came back to the restaurant, with all the bravado of a magic trick. He worked with my mother in her bartending days, so we always had the inside track on the staff (extra cherries in the Shirley Temples from Claire at the bar). Even though we knew we had actually ordered the salad, having him ceremoniously squeeze lemons and mince garlic for us always felt like an off-menu surprise—a treat for only the highest of rollers that made other diners crane their necks to watch our table. He never flinched when we stood on the banquette to watch the flurry of his hands in motion. I loved seeing the tell-tale cart cruise towards us, maneuvering around the dining room like a heat-seeking missile stacked high with romaine, a tall wooden pepper grinder standing at attention.
French tableside service was nothing new to van Aalst when he helped to open Equus Restaurant at the Fountaingrove Inn in 1986, on a wide corner of an intersection in Santa Rosa, California. He’d first learned it 10 years prior, at various spots in the Bay Area. He didn’t move around as much as people tend to in this industry, which meant that during his 25 years at Equus, he became the one coaching waiters to pick up dimes and un-popped kernels of popcorn in silver service training. He was also the sommelier, and for a little while, lived on the other side of the swimming pool in our condo complex, where he had a whole wall made of corks. His team at Equus did it all: Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee, the works.
His Caesars, though. To this day, whenever a reunion takes place, all anyone wants to talk about is that damn salad, because he was—and is, even post-retirement—THE guy.
There’s something about standing in front of others and taking charge of the situation that is satisfying to a degree in any job. You don’t get to do that behind the perfume counter at Macy’s. There are very few situations in which people will sit and watch and listen to what you’re doing, so it is definitely a little bit of an ego boost to have people listen to you and appreciate you. So whatever personality it is that demands that sort of satisfaction is drawn to it. Remember Jean-Marie? That goofy French guy that worked down here? He’d get so dramatic with flambés and all that that he’d burn his eyebrows off. Everybody would yell, and he’d whoop and have a good time. It was definitely a performance art. It wasn’t just feeding people. It’s still popular, but the transient nature of this business means that people don’t get the same training that we did.
I would try to never say the same lines, none of the “Hi, I’m Larry, I’ll be with you tonight,” stuff. I tried to be as personal and spontaneous as I could be. And as unobtrusive. You do your entertainment, but you have to read people, and see what they want from you. That’s part of the artistry of a waiter’s position.
The creation myth of Caesar salad usually goes something like this: Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant turned restaurateur created the salad in 1924 after a Fourth of July push depleted the kitchen larder. Improvising, he threw together whatever he had left, and added a little flair—concocting it tableside. Everyone else says they had already invented the thing, that it was called “Aviator’s salad,” but hey, it’s pretty clear who came out on top. Julia Child famously recalled having it at his restaurant, even if the first major mention of the creation didn’t show up until 1946, in Pennsylvania’s News Herald. The big food rage in Hollywood, Dorothy Kilgallen writes, is an “intricate concoction that takes ages to prepare and contains (zowie!) lots of garlic, raw or slightly coddled eggs, croutons, romaine, anchovies, parmeasan [sic] cheese, olive oil, vinegar and plenty of black pepper.”
Close, but here’s how van Aalst did it:
While you’re doing it, you have to be in the now. That’s definitely one of the secrets: you cannot multitask.
The way you start is with a clean wooden bowl. You put a little salt in the bowl, maybe half a teaspoon. Chop up one clove of garlic, and you do that by sticking a fork in the garlic and then using a sharp knife to create a kind of mincer. Chop it up really quickly, and then you take the fork and mash it a little bit in the bottom of the bowl. With a large, heavy spoon, you draw the garlic across the side of the bowl, and eventually the garlic will turn into a purée. That stays on the side of the bowl, so that the leaves pick up a little bit of the flavor when they’re tossed. Then you do the same with anchovy, and you can do one filet of anchovy for each person at the table.
The next step is to crack an egg—the whole egg—into the bottom of the bowl, and then directly on top of that, squeeze a lemon. You stick a little cheesecloth on it and put a fork in it to squeeze the lemon. The recipe we used had a little bit of Worcestershire sauce, about a tablespoon, and we also put a little A1 steak sauce* in it. On top of that, you put one part red wine vinegar, which turns out to be maybe two tablespoons, and then four parts olive oil. Mix that in the bottom of the bowl. When that’s thoroughly mixed, you add the torn hearts of romaine, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and as much fresh ground pepper as you think is going to be appreciated by the guest. And that’s all there is. It’s a simple salad, and it should be done relatively quickly.
The trick to any aspect of French service, he notes, is muscle memory—learning how to use your hands correctly, mostly. The Caesar was no different; mincing the garlic and anchovy to the right consistency was tricky for people, as were the proportions. There was always a leaf or two left in the bowl for sampling. Every single salad made was analyzed and tweaked, thus kept on track.
You have to put some energy into it when you’re making the salad and not be too glib. Obviously kids will want to get up and look in the bowl as you’re doing it, things like that. People who are good at it are the people who enjoy making it and eating it. Oftentimes, we’d make Caesar salads at the end of the night just because we liked ‘em and wanted it for dinner ourselves.
Trends change, and what we expect changes dramatically. But if you get someone who knows something about Caesar salad, it might be one of the best dishes in the house. I think the faster you go, the better it turns out. One of the things that does is it gives you the impetus to put enthusiasm into it. When you’re doing the garlic and the anchovy and going fast, you’re more dramatic. And you can’t take five minutes out of your service. You have to make it in 90 seconds, otherwise you’ve lost a lot of other races while you’re trying to finish that one. I was real quick.
I made close to 40,000 Caesar salads at that restaurant. I worked 260 days a year, for 25 years. If you do ten a day, and sometimes I’d do more…you see how the numbers go.
By his count, people don't get really good until they hit 10,000.
*Pro-tip: A1 has a lot of depth, (and UMAMI as the cool kids say) and lends a just a hint of smoke to the dressing. It’s barely noticeable, except when it’s missing, and then you’re like, WHERE’S MY A1 AT, YO?! So, you know, try it.
By Cassandra Landry.