Grilling a Sicilian fish at Sotto in Los Angeles @SottoLA

The pizza oven at Sotto using white oak. The oven was imported in pieces from Italy and constructed by a master Italian pizza oven craftsman. It's still hot enough in the AM that they bake the nicely crusty bread in the oven.
The pizza oven at Sotto using white oak. The oven was imported in pieces from Italy and constructed by a master Italian pizza oven craftsman. The oven is still hot enough in the morning that they bake their nicely crusty bread in the oven.

I had an opportunity to hang out in the kitchen with the staff at Sotto earlier this year. Reality food TV would have you believe that professional cooking is all about what you can do with a secret ingredient in 60 minutes, or marshmallow peeps in 20. The truth is that real professionals are focused on repeatably and consistently producing dishes, night after night, that have been fine-tuned way before the actual restaurant service. Every time I asked the staff at Sotto about an order being made, I got quite exact answers about technique, quantity, time and seasoning level.

Don’t get me wrong, the culinary arts are an intensely creative field. It was clear that each dish at Sotto had gone through a fun-but-sometimes-disappointing development process. But consistency is the name of the game in a restaurant, and Sotto does this well night after night. This appreciation prompted me to go home and make fresh pasta three different ways so I could decide the best one. One might think this frustrating, but I found it very satisfying (but not to be done the evening of a dinner party).

Being in the kitchen at Sotto also gave me a better appreciation for the much-maligned white-hat French chef’s concept of “mise en place”. Every spare moment at Sotto was devoted to prepping for the service and cooking ahead the scratch-made ingredients used to make a perfect dish. I even got some advice when I was cleaning peppers for the staff. I had the prep bowls arranged in an odd way that led to odd hand motions. A simple rearranging of the bowls doubled my speed. The suggestion was so natural it seemed to come from second nature among the Sotto staff about seeing something out of place and correcting it.

Left to right - Juan, Daniel, Merrin and yours truly
Left to right – Juan, Daniel, Merrin and yours truly

That evening, Chef Steve Samson hosted me and taught me how to cook a whole fish on the grill (details below). Staff members Daniel, Merrin, and Juan could not have been more welcoming and open to my constant curiosity. Daniel was at the pasta station, Merrin on pizza, salads and desserts, and Juan manned the white-hot white-oak-fired grill.

Sotto is distinctive in that the “front of the house” staff and the kitchen staff work so well together. They are one team and work great together seamlessly. I think back to my high school days as a busboy at a Chinese-Italian-American restaurant in my hometown (yes, really!) when the Chinese chefs would chase waiters out of the kitchen with knifes after an argument. Or my waiter days in college when chefs reduced servers to tears over how quickly food got picked up. This is not Sotto. There, folks work well together and like each other. It’s really all about the tone that’s set by Chefs Steve and Zach.

Grilled Fish
The fish flipper and Mr. fish

How to Grill a Fish

At Sotto they use Orata (sea bream) for this dish. I used striped sea-bass on my home grill. Chef Steve gave me just a few really simple steps conquer what seems like an impossible task.

  1. Have the right equipment — a fish flipper (this probably has a more professional sounding name) and a pair of tongs.
  2. Take the cleaned fish and season the inside well with salt and pepper. Gently stuff with lemon slices and herbs. I used Rosemary, sage and oregano from my garden.
  3. Make sure the fish skin is dry. Use a paper towel to dry the fish very well.
  4. Oil the hot grill with olive oil. Just dip some paper towels in olive oil and rub on the metal grill using the tongs.
  5. Place the fish on the grill on a diagonal and DON’T MOVE IT. The fish will let you know when it’s ready to flip it. The fish will release when the skin is cooked. Test it by lifting the fish up by the tail to see if it’s released from the grill.
  6. Now for the flip. Using the tongs by grabbing the tail, raise the fish guiding it with the fish flipper. Now holding the fish with the fish flipper, reposition the tongs to the center of the fish and flip to the other side.
  7. Now the same goes for the other side. The fish will release when done. Using both the fish flipper and the tongs, remove to a serving platter.

I brushed the fish with a simple Sicilian marinade right after it came off the grill. Bagna Oreganata is 1/4 cup each of white wine and olive oil, a small pinch of dried oregano, 1 minced clove of garlic, salt and pepper. Combine and whisk. Brush over the hot fish.

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