Mar 22, 2012 , The Austin Chronicle
Lights! Camera! Cooking!
By Virginia B. Wood, Fri., March 23, 2012
Tim and Karrie League created their first Alamo Drafthouse theatre in an old parking garage, doing much of the finish-out work themselves. The kitchen in that first theatre Downtown was small but functional enough to turn out the opening menu of pizzas, burgers, fries, and popcorn. As the local brand expanded, the Leagues went on to recondition three existing theatres around the city and built a fourth in a South Austin building formerly occupied by a grocery store. Serviceable kitchens were carved out of theatre auditoriums, and a full-fledged kitchen was designed for the South Lamar Drafthouse, but the newest Alamo is the first from-the-ground-up theatre with its own original kitchen the company has built in Austin. The new operation celebrates its grand opening this week, and the kitchen is the culmination of almost everything the Leagues and their staff have learned about serving food with movies.
Corporate chef John Bullington's office was cluttered with boxes, cookbooks, menus, and kitchen equipment brochures when we visited earlier this month, but he was still settling in. Bullington joined the Alamo team as a chef in fall 2004 to develop and oversee the company's expanding concept of pairing meals with movies. He's been responsible for expanding the original menu, creating menu specials to complement different movies, and designing feasts to pair with blockbuster films and film festivals, not to mention representing the Alamo in Iron Chef-like battles in which movies themselves are the secret ingredients for the meal. Bullington was promoted to corporate executive chef in 2010, tasked with overseeing the development of food service plans and kitchen designs for the Drafthouse brand as the company expands around the country. It's a complex job that requires creativity, flexibility, and stamina.
The day we took our kitchen tour, representatives of TurboChef were on-site, showing cooks on the opening team how to use the new, ultrahot, continuous-action conveyor-belt pizza oven. The new oven will shave minutes off the time it takes to get freshly made, hot pizzas to hungry movie patrons and will also be used to cook bacon and bake cookies and lasagna. Like the pizza oven, every aspect of the new Draft¬house kitchen was designed and equipped with speed, spatial efficiency, and durability in mind. Servers now have handheld point-of-sale devices that get orders into the kitchen faster. At capacity, the theatre's eight screens seat 832 guests, so the kitchen will have several rushes a day when it'll have to quickly turn out hundreds of orders at a time.
The commercial dishwasher and entire stainless-steel dish line are vented so the kitchen doesn't get steamy at peak service times. The station where vegetables are prepped, pizza dough is made, and cheeses are grated is conveniently located right outside the walk-in. The amount of freezer space needed in the huge, new walk-in was reduced to 30% because so much of the food here is prepared fresh, from scratch. The swanky pizza oven that can also cook bacon frees up space on the flattop for those cooking burgers and other hot items. The new, heavy-duty Traul¬sen undercounter refrigerators are strategically placed for economy of motion: Cooks in each station can grab what they need and work quickly to assemble salads, cook burgers, or add condiments.
"The guy working the burger station probably opens and closes his refrigerator 1,000 times a day. The Traulsen boxes were more expensive, but we found that cheaper models tended to fall apart from continuous use and were always having to be replaced," Bullington said.
It's a large-capacity, high-octane kitchen that doesn't resemble any restaurant kitchen we've ever seen – it's more like a hotel banquet operation on a never-ending busy weekend. The kitchen requires a staff of nearly 40 people who cover two long shifts a day. Once the opening crew has mastered preparing the everyday Draft¬house and 400 Rabbits menus (see sidebar), special dishes linked to upcoming movies and feasts will very soon be added to the workload. One 35-seat auditorium will mostly be used for private screenings and parties, where customized food is likely to be required as well. "I'm seeing lots of kids' birthday parties in here, for some reason," the chef told us. Bullington also described the one innovation that didn't make it into the overall design at Slaughter Lane: locating the kitchen on the same upstairs level as the projection equipment for speed and easy server access. "That way, the servers would enter the theatres from the top and work down, rather than carrying food long distances through the air-conditioned lobby or hallways," he explained. The first upstairs kitchen is planned for the Alamo Draft¬house being built in Denver.
Now that the Slaughter Lane theatre is up and running, Bullington can turn his attention to future projects, such as the planned renovations of historic theatres in San Francisco and possibly Brooklyn. There's talk of creating an opening team that can travel to new Drafthouse locations around the country to hire and train employees as the company expansion continues. (A job description that makes me wish I were 25 again, I might add.) Working for a successful entertainment company where the mission statement appears to be "bring us your best or craziest creative idea, and we'll find a way to make it happen and have a good time doing it," there's really no telling what chef Bullington will do next.