Fire. Fire! FIRE! Ahh, it's one of the most enticing, exhilarating, and yet terrifying words in our language. We love fire. We fear fire. We watch it wherever it is, whether it's tamed in a fireplace or raging uncontrollably in Yellowstone or the West Bottoms. Even at our peril it draws us close, but there we are, staring open-mouthed. The Boy Scouts exist so teenage arsonists can sublimate their incendiary energy and build whopping fires under the supervising eye of an allegedly responsible adult. All the rest, hikes and merit badges, projects and patriotism, is garnish, designed to fool moms; fire, big fire, is what it's all about.
Adults have few places to channel such pyromaniacal desires. The stereotypical suburban dad loves to barbecue, not because he enjoys cooking, but because he loves burning things. Those waiting tables in four star restaurants get to build bonfires regularly. But the same disasters that befall the Scouts in the woods, and all of you who were Scouts remember the day Kevin McDonough threw a coffee can full of gasoline on a fire and nearly burned down the forest, occur there as well. I worked in New Orleans in the mid Seventies. A number of my fellow waiters had been employed at Brennan's, famous for their alcohol-laden breakfasts and Bananas Foster. One such Foster flambé caused a bottle of brandy resting a bit too close to the fire to explode, shoot across the room as a flaming projectile, and come to rest in some velvet curtains, which went up rapidly. Velvet makes good fuel, in case you ever are short of kindling. Brennan's was closed for a year or so while it was rebuilt. This story was on the lips of everyone who demonstrated flambé technique to new waiters. Though secretly they would have loved watching such an inferno, moving it from hearsay legend to witnessed reality. "Yep, I was there the day....." Our only nod towards safety after this was that we were not allowed to keep liquor bottles on our gueridons.
Commander's Palace had the usual flambé menu items: Bananas Foster, Baked Alaska, Steak Diane, Pepper Steak, and our own Lemon Crepes Commander. We also had another crepes dish we discouraged heartily; it was hard to cook right, didn't taste all that good, and didn't offer much opportunity for explosions. Our executive chef, Paul Prudhomme, never taught us how to prepare any of these dishes; we had to pick them up watching others and discussing it before and after our shifts. I looked forward with equal parts dread and excitement to the eventual loss of my combustion virginity. And my first time was indeed memorable. Wasn't hard, got a nice tip, smiles all around. Flushed with success, I looked forward to cooking again. We worked split shifts, and I sold crepes at lunch the next day. This was a serious faux pas, as once crepes were served, everyone wanted them, and the lunch shift tipping did not justify such labor. But my table ordered crepes, and I obliged.
The key to successful crepes, besides diabetes inducing quantities of sugar, was to have a hot pan before pouring the brandy in. If the sauce was thick and you added alcohol to a simmering cauldron, it did not ignite. Not only was this a bit disappointing for the customers (they after all were paying a premium price for someone to make a fire next to them), but it tasted bad. The usual technique to guarantee a successful blaze was to tip the pan back a bit, letting the liquid drain towards you, and allowing the exposed portion of the pan to just start to sizzle. Pouring brandy here would get a nice flame, and gradually leveling the pan and guiding the sauce slowly back into the flames blended and burned beautifully. Lovely fire, everyone happy.
But like all ignition sequences, the opportunity for error was ever-present. The lunch time crepes were simmering and I tipped the pan. It got plenty hot, probably exceeding brandy's flash point by 500 degrees, so that when I poured the brandy in, I didn't get a gentle poof and a nice blue flame. No, I got an whoomp! like a gas main bursting.
Next to my table, a man was leaning back in his chair, and the unexpected explosion right behind his head startled him rather badly. He fell backwards, grasping wildly as he attempted to violate gravity as Wile Coyote does. But this was lunch in New Orleans, and the rules of physics applied. He cracked his head on the corner of my table. There were a lot of liquids on that table, and when it bounced and then landed hard, they flowed freely. A river of coffee, water, and booze poured into the laps of my party, while the sputtering oaf, in one of those "Jeez, two seconds ago everything was great, and now I'm lying on the floor with water dripping on my face" moments, clawed his way up and apologized profusely, without, I believe, truly understanding how he came to be lying on his back. All the other waiters in the room certainly did. They made a simultaneous exit, as it was considered bad form to laugh at your peers with customers present. But laugh at me they did for days, until the next fire disaster occurred.
That wait wasn't long. Our most flamboyant, and most expensive dessert, was Baked Alaska, a confection of the cheapest pound cake covered with the cheapest ice cream, buried under flavorless meringue. The waiter's job was merely to brown this concoction. A bowl of flaming brandy was stirred and a every few moments a ladle of fire was lifted and dropped over the cake. There really was nothing to do; the event was all show, so the ladle was lifted high and the brandy poured from a great distance, a blue stream cascading down, and bouncing off, the Alaska. The maitre d' might turn the lights low, the entire room could ooh and aah, and order one themselves. Another of the fancy tricks was to take a little brandy and shoot it across the table with a grand arc of the arm, a streak of flame burning diagonally for a moment before going out. However, if you threw too much brandy, the table cloth would actually catch on fire. It was hard, as Larry Roberts demonstrated, to extinguish a flaming tablecloth while cooking a flaming dessert. The right hand slapped his side towel discreetly at first, frantically a bit later, while his left attempted to nonchalantly shake the contents of his skillet. That was my chance to flee the room and laugh.
But my turn came again. I was cooking an Alaska one night, trying to make the demonstration convincing, and ladling my brandy from on high. I did the obligatory toss on the table. Unfortunately, my arm completed its motion just as one of the men reached for sugar for his coffee, and the stream of flaming brandy landed, not on the tablecloth, but on the sleeve of his jacket. I remember that jacket vividly, a brown tweed, very attractive. The sight of his left sleeve with ten inches of flame leaping from it is seared in my mind. He did what anyone who suddenly found himself on fire would do, leapt around, and violently slapped the sleeve, trying to put the fire out. He eventually did, and his jacket was unharmed. I finished the show, sliced and served the Alaska with an apology, and maintained my composure, as if I regularly ignited my customers.