National Culinary Arts month is observed in July to recognize the chefs, cooks and staff who create innovative, unique cuisine. That creativity is on display at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Grand Casino Hotel & Resort’s Flame Restaurant.
In a Brazilian steakhouse like Flame, guests can expect gauchos to come to the table with a vertically-held skewer, which holds various premium cuts of meat, including beef, pork, chicken and lamb. The restaurant features a full-service bar and the dining room’s atmosphere is upscale and modern.
Executive Chef Nate Hahn leads a group of 12 employees, including dish washers, sous chefs, food prep and gauchos. Hahn has worked for CPN for 15 years, starting as a line cook, then sous chef, and now as executive chef.
“It’s been fun. There’s always plenty to do. It’s definitely busy for sure,” he said.
While each employee has a different path to the culinary field, they have one common attribute: they are all passionate about food.
The kitchen at Flame is busy several hours before food is served. The staff trims and seasons fresh cuts of meat before placing them on skewers. They also prepare fresh salad greens, roasted vegetables, soups, cheeses and cured meats for the salad bar.
“Usually around 4:45, I’ll make sure the grill’s lit. Then we’ll start firing (food). And then I’m usually (at the grill) until we close,” Hahn said.
During dinner service, Chef Hahn and the gauchos continuously grill premium cuts of steak, pork, chicken, sausage and lamb, and a Brazilian favorite called picanha. Flame offers 11 different kinds of meat, each prepared differently. Some cuts are wrapped in bacon. Even the way the meats are skewered varies according to the cut.
The picanha is a cut of beef taken from the top of the rump and is also known as rump cover or sirloin cap. It is prepared in the traditional churrasco style. Churrasco refers to the Portuguese and Spanish name for grilled meat, and it features in the cuisine of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Flame’s gauchos then serve each table in the dining room.
“It was a lot to learn when I came up here,” Hahn said. “Looking in, it looks easy. You just throw stuff on the fire. But fires are a lot more unforgiving than when you’re cooking with gas.”
Diners can expect great flavor in each dish — something the staff is passionate about delivering each meal service.
“I was always taught customers taste with their eyes,” said Line Prep Cook Tanya Pitchford. “If it looks beautiful and tasty, they’re going to take it.”
Pitchford has been with Flame for five years. She began her career as a dishwasher in the Grandstand Sports Bar and Grill. Her passion for food motivated her to pursue a career in culinary arts.
Line Cook Rick Cornish helps with the prep work as he slices roasted yellow peppers. Cornish began working in the culinary field about eight years ago. When the opportunity arose to move up as a line cook, he jumped at the chance.
While patrons are savoring their meal, the kitchen is buzzing as Pitchford, Cornish and the rest of the staff keep the salad bar full and ensure that clean tableware is ready for the next set of customers.
“When I first started it used to make me nervous to see (customers) taking so much from the salad bar, but now I know it just means I did a good job,” Cornish said.
Gauchos play a very unique role at Flame. They not only help trim the meats before they’re cooked, but they also help in the dining room, taking the grilled meats from table to table so customers can sample their favorites.
“The gauchos are kind of a cool thing. They serve the meat, but they also cut it. They’ll throw stuff on the grill; they’ll take stuff off the grill. Gauchos are a unique position,” Hahn said.
Gaucho Julio Flores has been on the job for two years. Like Pitchford, he began working in the “back of the house.” He was asked if he would like to apply for one of the open gaucho jobs.
“It seemed pretty cool, watching (them) carry all the meats around and talking to people,” Flores said. “I get to meet lots of interesting people.”
Over the years, Flame staff have become friendly with their regular customers. But whether the customer is a regular or first-time guest, staff wants each patron to experience the exact same level of quality each time they visit.
Customer favorites can vary: one night, guests can’t get enough of the restaurant’s oysters. Another evening, the filet mignon takes center stage. The staff goes with the flow.
Cornish’s chimichurri sauce is a crowd pleaser, Pitchford said. Cornish prepares four to six quarts each week, using fresh ingredients. Patrons have often asked for the recipe.
“I have to tell them, ‘I can’t give you the recipe because then you might not come back,’” Cornish laughed.
The staff is also happy to help customers celebrate special occasions like birthdays, graduations and holidays. Cornish noted that one unique Oklahoma phenomenon also brings out the crowds.
“If it’s going to storm, we know we’re going to be busy,” he said.
Workdays in a busy restaurant like Flame can be long, hectic and just plain hot. But Cornish, Pitchford and Flores agree that Chef Nate provides steady leadership.
“He’s a very good boss,” Cornish said. “He’s the most even-keeled man I know.”
Hahn is a graduate of Platt College in Oklahoma City, but for those hoping to enter the field, his advice is simple.
“Get a job in any restaurant and just make sure you really like it,” he said. “Culinary school is good; it teaches you the basics. But if you get that work experience, that will help you in the long run.”
Pitchford agrees the right attitude and teamwork are essential in any professional kitchen.
“You’ve got to be positive,” she said. “I know it’s kind of corny to say, but there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”
“You can teach someone, but you can’t really teach them to have the right attitude. I look for someone who really wants to be here,” Hahn said.
Despite the sometimes physically grueling work, there are many rewards.
“I’m used to long hours on my feet, but it does get tiring,” Hahn said. “At the end of the day, it’s a good feeling to go home and say, ‘I accomplished this. Everything went smooth.’ Even when you’re tired, you’re still happy.”
Occasionally, the staff is reminded that their work is not as glamorous as it is on television cooking shows. One evening, they had to contend with a malfunctioning air conditioning unit. Pitchford said despite the heat, they pulled together by focusing on the food.
“I think (television) does make it too glamorous. You’re around heat and stress. The (television) glorifies it, which is fine, but it’s not always what you’ll be doing,” Hahn said.
The staff draws positive inspiration from some well-known chefs. The late Anthony Bourdain, author and television star, remains an inspiration to both Chef Hahn and Cornish.
“I was a young cook when I read Kitchen Confidential, and it really opened my eyes. It takes a specific type of person to want to do this and be happy doing this,” Hahn said.
“This doesn’t feel like a job — it’s my passion. I’d be up here every day if I could,” Pitchford said.
For more information, visit Flame at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort. Reservations are encouraged. Call 405-964-4777.