To expedite; to speed up or accelerate a process; to execute quickly and efficiently. In chefspeak, it’s the process of coordinating the delivery of each and every dish out of the kitchen in a timely manner. When I spent the day at Ramiro’s 954 with chef Ramiro Jimenez, I was not only behind the kitchen door, but in front of his culinary team (“the line”) observing exactly how a dish gets from point A (the stovetop) to point B (your table).
Restaurant: Ramiro’s 954 in Mahopac.
Description: The restaurant is a two-story stucco building located just north of town on Route 6. The main dining room is large, yet comfortably inviting with its warm colors of tangerine and gold and its dark wood bar and tables. The focal point and best feature by far is the expansive open kitchen where you can see chef Jimenez and his staff in action.
The cool spiral staircase leads to the upstairs dining room, which is, in my opinion, a perfect “catch up with friends spot” since it’s a little removed from the lively downstairs.
If looking up that staircase gives you vertigo, no worries since there are two secret back stairs that gives the staff easy access to the upper dining room.
Cuisine: The Nuevo Latino menu is abundant with the diverse, rich cuisines of Latin America, the Caribbean, Mexico and Spain. Chef Jimenez serves up a brilliant blend of traditional and contemporary flavors.
Owners: The restaurant is owned by chef Ramiro Jimenez, his wife, Jan, and their best friends (and now business partners) Joel and Traci Rosow. While Ramiro is always visible in the kitchen, Jan can be found in the dining room greeting customers, enthusiastically explaining specials, and always making sure everyone is taken care of.
Executive chef: Before opening Ramiro’s 954, chef Jimenez worked in NYC restaurants Patria, Chicama, Pipa, and Noche, all owned by chef Douglas Rodriguez. In 2006, he joined La Puerta Azul, which was named the best Latino Restaurant in Dutchess County for 2008 and 2010. He is also the author of Daily Feast Cookbook (a signed copy is part of my cookbook collection).
Signature dish/most complicated: The Pernil con Mojo (pork shank) is so popular it’s become the signature dish (especially after their NYTimes “don’t miss” review last June), but it also happens to be the most involved dish since it takes about a day and half to complete. The dinosaur-like pork shanks start out with a dry rub of an assortment spices, marinating for 24 hours.
Then, they get a quick sear to lock in moisture before the addition of rosemary, onion, celery, oranges, and jalapeno. A splash of white vinegar allays the slight gaminess of the pork. (Note: If, like me, the word jalapeno makes you think of tongue searing heat, trust me that this is absolutely not the effect you will encounter at Ramiro’s 954. Jalapeno peppers are used sparingly as an enhancement to the dish.)
Ramiro adds water, lays parchment paper over the shanks and covers it with a sheet pan; all to keep the meat tender and moist. He brings the pan to a boil, and then turns down the heat to braise it low and slow for about 3 1/2 hours until it is falling off the bone. This is where patience absolutely pays off, because this pork shank is melt in your mouth tender served with a creamy tomatillo-avocado sauce and garlic mojo sauce.
Bar Scene: It’s common to meet up at the bar before dinner to enjoy a mojito or a housemade fruit-filled red or white sangria (my secret obsession). It’s always a lively atmosphere with a mix of Latin music playing. Check for weeknight events — like ladies or guys night out offering two-for-one drink specials.
Coolest appliance: At first, I wanted to call the appliance a gecko because I knew it had something to do with a reptile, like my son’s pet.
Ramiro made me feel better that at least I had the correct species; the appliance is a salamander, an overhead broiler used for browning, toasting and caramelizing.
Because the heating element is on the top, rather than on the bottom like a conventional grill, steaks and chops cook without flare ups from dripping fat.
Size of kitchen: This 32 ft x 24 ft kitchen is spacious and well-designed. It’s so organized that I suspect Ramiro can work practically with his eyes closed since he personally designed every inch of it. There are two refrigerators in the back area that hold back-up service items. The walk-in fridge measures about 12 ft x 8 ft and is located right outside the back door.
Size of prep area: The prep areas are versatile; for example, the counters on the two cold stations or the placement of cutting boards around the various side tables. Adding sheet trays on the hot line station (before it’s fired up, of course!) also adds extra space.
Turning up the heat: The kitchen is a powerhouse sporting a Garland Sunfire 10 burner gas stove with a double oven, a two foot grill, and double basket fryers times two (one fryer for savory items, like the empanadas, and the other for sweet items, like the churros and plantains).
There’s an Imperial double stack convection oven on the far side of the kitchen which is used mostly for baked desserts.
Most impressive to me was the hot line, essentially a 12 foot bain marie (that’s French for a hot water bath), which holds menu items that need to be kept at ready-to-serve temperature.
Chef’s favorite dish(es): Ramiro’s difficulty to choose one single item clearly shows how passionate he is about his menu. He makes his choices from both a cooking and eating point of view. “You have to taste”, he tells me, and I agree since I have enjoyed some of his personal favorites like the Ceviche Trio of tuna, salmon and shrimp, each in their own special mixture of spices, herbs and citrus. Or, the lightly fried, sweet/savory, beef-filled Empanadas de Picadillo.
Ramiro freely admits that he loves pork, so including the Pernil con Mojo comes as no surprise. These dishes are all different in terms of taste and texture, but each one is special to him.
Secret ingredient: White vinegar makes a few surprise appearances in this kitchen, but not always in the cooking. Ramiro adds vinegar to the water in his utensil container to sanitize his spoons and spatulas as he cooks, and he keeps a vinegar soaked cloth handy to clean his hands as he works.
Chef’s culinary mentor: In 1991, Ramiro started working for NYC chef and restaurateur Douglas Rodriguez. Chef Rodriguez is considered to be the godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine. For the next seven years under his mentor’s guidance, Ramiro worked his way through the culinary ranks from cook to sous chef to finally chef de cuisine at Chicama. He doesn’t credit chef Rodriguez with teaching him how to cook, but more importantly giving him the culinary knowledge to become the chef he is today. Ramiro has also worked in French, Asian, Italian and even Kosher restaurants, but it was chef Rodriguez that influenced him to go back to his Mexican roots as he began working with familiar products like yucca and coconut.
Favorite kitchen gadget: Nothing like being consistent in this one category; the knives have won again. Specifically, it was this off-set knife that Ramiro has had forever.
But then, he slyly asks me if I know what this is as he squeezes the scissor-like handle.
Ummm, magic chef wand? bubble maker? It’s an egg cutter that cleanly removes the tapered top of an egg. With just a squeeze of the handle, the ring of teeth around the circle pierce the egg and with a gentle twist the top comes right off. It’s the perfect tool for a soft boiled egg, but extremely elegant when the shell itself is used as a presentation vessel for baked custards.
What’s cooking in the kitchen now: Ramiro was making tomato rice which goes with the Arroz con Pollo. He uses the freshest ingredients like chunks of tomato, tomato juice and some jalapeno peppers. He explains that the rice absorbs all the natural flavors and he adds only water to keep the dish all vegetarian. In a restaurant kitchen, items like rice and pasta are cooked about three-quarters of the way through and then finished when needed.
I thought it was somewhat strange that we would also be making risotto. I learned that there are many Italians in Uruguay and Argentina, explaining why this Italian rice makes an appearance in the Dorado con Risotto (grilled Mahi Mahi).
What’s on the prep list: Ramiro’s prep list is written in a typical school marble notebook that his daughters share with him (and sometimes they leave him notes like “I love you, Daddy”).
Happily, one of my tasks was to make the churros dough (mmmmmmm, donuts). The Churros con Chocolate are on Ramiro’s dessert menu, but traditionally they can be served for breakfast or snacks. The recipe is quite similar to a French cream puff pate a choux, except these goodies are fried, not baked, and then coated with cinnamon sugar.
The dough is piped through a pastry bag right into the fryer (the wide star tip gives them their unique ridges). The perfect accompaniment is the warm chocolate ganache dipping sauce.
A view from the line: It’s 6 pm on a Saturday night when this 125 seat restaurant is starting to buzz, and I have an executive chef’s eye view of the kitchen in action standing next to Ramiro as he expedites. This first seating of the night is important for two reasons (1) to turn the tables without delay in time for the next reservation, and (2) so Ramiro’s culinary team of seven, from dishwasher to sous chef, starts the evening on a smooth track and avoids getting backed up (in the weeds). Ramiro shares with me that he views the pressures of the kitchen as a challenge, and each night that he wins is a good night. He embraces the sounds of the kitchen coming alive like the water running, the dishes clanking, and ticket machine chattering.
I can tell that Ramiro anticipated with relish each table’s ticket popping up, but all I could envision is my evil twin of a printer that’s always taunting me that I’m just not fast enough.
As Ramiro stands facing the line, it is equivalent to a conductor in front of his orchestra. He is constantly speaking to his team (in Spanish), and even I understood a few directions like vamos (let’s go!) and correcto (yes chef!). Each dish that comes across the pass is inspected and finished by Ramiro himself — adding a drizzle of sauce or placing a garnish just so. His philosophy is fundamental: the restaurant is a direct reflection of him and he takes great pride in every aspect. All his hard work pays off when customers feel welcome, enjoy his food and simply have a memorable experience. Yet, he feels that even more important is the rare negative comment, because only then can he and his staff learn to do better.
Want your own personal close-up view into this busy kitchen? Starting soon, seats will be available at the open kitchen counter for a chef’s table tasting.
My random insights: Ramiro has been a frequent participating chef at James Beard Foundation events. A look through his scrapbook had this foodie totally chefstruck. Here he is with the man who has the distinguished honor of being described as the world’s greatest chef.
Details: Ramiro’s 954, 954 Route 6, Mahopac. 845.621.3333. Open for dinner Tuesday thru Thursday, 4 pm to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday until 11pm and Sunday until 9 pm. Lunch Friday, Saturday and Sunday starting at noon.
Patrice Costa is a passionate foodie who is on a personal culinary mission to learn it all from local chefs. She looks forward to sharing her experiences as she goes behind the kitchen door in some of her favorite restaurant kitchens. When not on foodie assignments, she can be found working in the open kitchen at Thyme Restaurant in Yorktown.