Chef Test: Boil and Crack Boxes of Live, Squirming Lobsters

Categories: Food News
Photo by Flicker user Lall
Could you crack these suckers while they're still alive?

Patty Canedo is a pastry chef at a famed, private country club on Palm Beach and writes weekly about her kitchen exploits.

Chef de Cuisine Luke is struggling with boxes and sweating, so I run over to offer help. "You know how to cook lobster?" He opens a box and pulls out a live two-pounder.

"Yes, chef," I say as I try to ignore the flapping tail and wild claw movements.

"Great! When this water boils, everyone goes into the pool. About eight minutes, then pull them out and put them in the walk-in." He drops the lobster and walks off.

"No problem," I mutter to myself. Five large boxes, eh? With the tilt skillet, it should take no time. I remember someone telling me that putting them in upside down kills them instantly. The water boils, no one is around, so I offer apologizes to the crustaceans, turn the box upside down, and close my eyes. It works. Except I could see that the pleopods of the lobsters on top were out of the water, frantically grasping and clawing.

"OH GOD!" I can't watch. I wipe my station, get a sheet pan, and try to keep my attention on something else. I occasionally look at the clock. They keep going for at least three minutes! The claws are finally still, and my guilt is gone. The timer
goes off. I pull them out, the steam clears off them, and they are a perfect red. I take in their sweet smell and admire a large tail, thinking of dipping it in melted butter.

"Hey, I just talked to chef -- change of plans. We'll cook them to order, but he wants the tails straight," Luke's looking at the batch I've already done. "Know how to do it?"


"What you're going to do is" -- he picks up a live lobster -- "take the lobster, turn it over, and take off its tail." With a hard crack and twist, he removes the tail. I put all my energy into not reacting, but my eyes are screaming.

"Then take off the claws," he says, ripping the arms off with no hesitation. "Then you skewer the tail." He drops the separated body parts onto the prep table. They are still moving. "So you need to grab three big containers to keep everything separate. You got me?" He sees me staring at the table. I just nod.

"Listen, here in the kitchen, the men are men, the women are men. Even the children, they're men. I'll get you those containers and a couple more hands to help you. We need these cracked quickly." He walks off. I'm still frozen, staring at the table.  

Coming up behind me, deep voices are laughing and chatting. The chef de parte and two line cooks grab lobsters and bamboo skewers.

I force the skewer through the shell at one end of the tail, up the "spine," and through the shell on the other end. The tail stops moving. I drop it into the bucket and keep working the tails.

Luke checks our progress. "You girls having a good time? Can I get you anything, some drinks maybe?" he says. "Get some speed on it -- we need those ready to go outside on the buffet in 30 minutes." We go quiet again and start moving faster.

I pick up a lobster, turn it over, and it squirms as I grip my hands around its tail. I crack it as hard as I can. It doesn't completely come apart, but I keep pulling, twisting, hoping I'm not torturing the little guy. The tail finally comes off; I grab his arm in one hand, head in the other, and separate them, flinching. I flip him around and do the same with the other hand. Toss the pieces in the buckets, sigh in relief, and keep going. We quickly get through the rest of the lobsters.

We run the containers outside to where the grill station is set on the buffet.

"Thanks, Patty. Good night," Luke says. He changes aprons and starts working the grill. I go back into the kitchen and wash my hands. The kitchen is quiet, but the cracking noise echoes in my head. I get a rough chill down my spine. 

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