March 05, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story


Unsung Heroes 

Parts and labor make up critical components of a restaurant’s identity, and too often the eater has no idea who’s making it happen.

click to enlarge Laine Myers

Scott Elmquist

Laine Myers

Laine Myers
Pasta-maker and chef, Nota Bene

I've been making pasta since my Graffiato days in 2014 and everywhere I've been since. Even at Metzger Bar and Butchery, we ran an occasional pasta course. But every night is a pasta night at Nota Bene. It's easily my strong suit.

The secret to making good pasta is when you think you're done kneading, knead five minutes more and when you think you're done resting it, let it rest another 20 minutes. It's crucial because almost every table wants pasta. It's a guilty pleasure and a comfort food.

Every week, we go through 50 pounds of flour — buckwheat, bread flour, rye flour, durum wheat, semolina and spelt — and two cases of eggs. It would be shocking how many eggs we go through. A ball of dough that weighs three pounds probably has 30 egg yolks in it.

It's a collaborative effort, putting 20 to 30 hours into pasta production every week. You can make pasta really sexy. I like that it's a labor of love, doing honest, hard work for a prissy plate-up.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

T.J. Hollington
Lead oyster shucker, Rappahannock

I started working at Rappahannock two years ago as a part-time dishwasher then learned prep until I was a line cook at brunch. One of the shuckers taught me to shuck and I started to get really good at it. So I went to work at Merroir, where the shucking's way more intense 'cause orders come in by the four or five dozen. I had to learn to get even quicker. Now I'm lead shucker at Rappahannock, but it was a gradual process that snowballed.

When you're shucking, it's all about safety to prevent the knife from going through your hand. You want to make the oyster as presentable as possible to the eye, no shells. Takes me about 50 seconds to shuck a dozen. But you need to be careful not to scramble the oyster so it looks like chopped meat. What makes me good at it? I can shuck oysters all night and still smile and talk to customers.

On a busy night, I'll shuck 800 to 1000 oysters — 853 last Saturday. I like Old Saltes best for what I call their oceanic taste. I don't get tired of our oysters. I could eat them all day.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Mario Albanes
Pupusa-maker and owner, El Pope

I learned to make pupusas in El Salvador as a teenager from my grandmother. It was a family thing.

It's a big process to make the filling, but the dough is the quick part. I go through 200 pounds of corn flour a week making them. Keeping everything inside is the hard part, but I have a trick for doing that. I have to, I make 100 to 200 a day and the pupusas need to be perfect every time.

After I worked 19 years running kitchens, I wanted my own restaurant. I wanted another step up. My family said if you never try, you never know. When I opened my own restaurant a year and a half ago, I only had a few pupusas on the menu but they were what everyone was ordering. Now there are seven pupusas, meat and vegetable, all with cheese.

Some people come back because of our pupusas and some come in and never heard of them. We tell them they're a traditional El Salvador dish made from scratch here at El Pope. I'm very happy when something I cook makes people happy eating it. Then I'm feeling happy, too.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Velma Johnson
Cake baker and owner, Mama J's

I've been baking since I was 11 years old, so 60 years. We started with 20 different cakes and now we're doing 65. I can take my basic recipe and make almost any kind of cake with it.

I go through 60 to 70 pounds of flour and the same in sugar to make 30 to 40 cakes every week. We've got three mixers and each makes four cakes at a time. It takes 45 minutes to mix the batter together and 45 minutes in the oven. So in an hour and a half, I can have a dozen cakes made and cooling on the racks. But you have to have a love of doing this and not rush it. If you rush through making the cake, it won't rise right.

Our cakes are a big part of Mama J's, probably a nine on a scale of one to 10. Maybe it's the way we present them on the shelf so people can see them. I know my favorite part of baking is looking at the finished cake with icing. It's just satisfying.


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