- Francis Mallmann, Seven Fires
"There are better chefs in the world. One comes reluctantly, yet undeniably, to that conclusion early in one's career."
- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
Three years ago, I was standing in another Chef’s kitchen wondering how to make his version of corn soup. There wasn’t a recipe – just a requisite batch size that seemed huge, enough soup for three, maybe four hundred people. I looked to the Chef, a bear of a man who was fiddling with the ice cream maker at the end of the long prep counter, and started to ask, “Chef, how do I make….”
He interrupted. He knows me and has read this blog enough to make a pointed comment. “Put your damn clogs on, Posey. For crying out loud.” Obviously I was already wearing shoes, but I took his meaning and got to work.
Started with onions and butter, loads of corn, deglazed with a delicate white wine. Cooked it down, added cream and milk. Salt and white pepper. A simple late-summer affair meant to be finished with lump Dungeness and basil pistou on the pick up. I pureed the blend and tasted it. Very husky, unpleasant eating, though the flavor was nice. Taking my cue from a practice I used at another restaurant, rather than taking my cue from years of experience with blenders, I decided to pass this enormous batch of soup through a chinois – a cone-shaped mesh “cap” used to catch any particle larger than this period here:
I ended up with about 12 gallons of sweet, corn-flavored milk. Chef took a look at my disaster and walked away without a word (I did get a Look, though), mentally rescheduling his tomorrow so he could transform my corn drink into soup. After that, I was put on ice cream duty and a young cook with a higher tolerance for blender noise took over the soup making.
At the time I wasn’t working as a Chef, but as a prep cook in two different restaurants. This one was in the Opera House (hence the batch sizes), the other was a fancy Seattle landmark on Capitol Hill. But this Chef's remark, and my results, crystalized something I’d begun to notice about my cooking habits. Perhaps out of respect for the Chef in charge of the House – his methods, recipes, preferences, and palate – or perhaps because I was suffering from a persistent cognitive laziness – I was beginning to feel as though each time I walked into a new kitchen, I was walking in with no previous knowledge. A newbie with twenty-five years of experience, totally reliant on the spattered Recipe Binder that may, or may not, exist in any given kitchen. Whereas when I’m running a kitchen, I have methods, practices, opinions, KNOWLEDGE, and guidance galore. Honestly, it’s a little bit embarrassing.
At the risk of making a fool of myself, here is another example.
The Chef at the Capitol Hill restaurant, one of the calmest dudes I’ve ever worked with, or for, brought in a whole lamb. Now, this wasn’t the lamb you’re picturing – cradled in the arms of a gentle shepherd, quietly baa-ing, or gamboling in the fields. No. This was a giant, a hogget (he was four), an animal whose behavior had become so belligerent he ended up with no head, skin, or feet, on a wheeled cart in a tiny walk-in (take note, youngster ungulates). Any time I needed something from the back of the walk-in, I had to squeeze past his body; his legs dragged along the front, or back, of my chef coat and then sprung back to their original stiffened position. His was a grisly, but quiet, companionship.
After the Chef broke him down into about 60 different pieces, the "lamb" was ready to be braised. Now, I’d worked in this house for about a week at this point, and hadn’t braised anything there but octopuses. So, when confronted with this new, mammalian project, I tried to remember what the house rules were for braising. I was alone until the Chef or Sous arrived around 1 pm, so I cast back to my training and could hear the Sous Chef saying….
“We braise everything the same way: red wine and something something something.”
The octopus was braised with red wine and red wine vinegar.
“Well,” thought I, “that’s a strange combination for lamb, but maybe they know something I don’t.”
After merrily searing the 60 pieces of lamb, tucking them into hotel pans with garlic and thyme, I covered the meat with red wine and, you guessed it, red wine vinegar. Gallons of the stuff. I dutifully wrote on the Ordering white board that we were now out of vinegar. All the pans were covered with parchment and foil and tucked into the ovens for three and a half hours. And I went on to my next task.
At noon, the Sous walked in. He looked at the white board and said, “Why do we need red wine vinegar?” But even as the last word left his mouth I could see – I could hear – something click in his mind and he looked at me with abject horror. I went completely cold, from scalp to clog. Of course, the "house rules" for braising were really just the actual rules for braising. At almost exactly the same time, the Chef walked in the front door. I threw myself on his mercy.
“Chef,” I said, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Instead of asking me to leave the restaurant, the city, and the Industry, he asked how long the meat had been cooking. By then, all the pans were out of the oven. The complicated scent of lamb, wine, and vinegar wafted through the kitchen.
“Well,” he said in his trademark calm voice, “Let’s switch out the liquid for stock and see what happens.”
I did so. Throughout the process, in my mind, I kept throwing apologies to the animal, even though by all accounts he’d been kind of a jerk in life.
The finished product wasn’t inedible. I’m sure in a place like Uzbekistan the meat would have been a local delicacy. Pungent, and a little tart. Just not what the Chef expected from me.
After that, and the Corn Soup Episode, I realized I needed to trust my own instincts, knowledge, and experience. I also realized that as fun as prep cooking can be, one needed to eat and pay rent.
A year later, I was again working as a Chef, this time back in the restaurant which framed so many of my experiences in Seattle, and inspired many of these blogs. A restaurant which, not to put too fine a point on it, held my attention with a grip strong enough to break my writing habits and leave my blog fields fallow. A restaurant family is an important one to have during good times and bad, and I was going through a rough time; I was grateful to have the distraction of work and the satisfaction of watching a crew come together. But still, the memory of the Mis-Braised Beast clung to me like a gamey smell on a sweater.
And so it was, until I finally found a chance to redeem myself for my Uzbekistani lamb.
There was a small leg of lamb in my father's fridge, from a tiny farm in Virginia, sold at the local Farmers’ Market. The piece of meat was only about six pounds, and small enough in circumference to be truly from a real youngster. The idea was that I would cook it for dinner one night, and make sandwiches the next day. My dad had had a real touch with lamb, though he liked it cooked to medium well, so I asked him what his secret was. He swam up from the bottom of the morphine pool he was submerged in at the time and answered, “You know how to cook.”
It’s true. I do.
Rubbed in olive oil, salt and pepper, herbs, and a crust of Coleman’s hot mustard, my dad’s favorite secret ingredient (besides molasses), I roasted the leg for a time with some carrots, onions, and wine. When the lamb was ready, I cut slices off for the five of us, noting to myself that there would not be enough meat for five sandwiches the next day, simultaneously strangling the thought that there might be only four of us by then.
Forks weren’t really working for my dad at this point, so, after we pulled him up into a sitting position, I handed him a plate with three slices of meat and two pieces of carrot. His long fingers hunted around the plate, as graceful then as they were when he was hammering out novels on a manual Smith & Corona. After days of showing no real appetite, he ate the lamb and carrots with a surprising gusto. Pleased with myself, I left the room to clean the kitchen. When the call came down from upstairs that he’d like a little more, I was knocked sideways by a weird jubilation, as though he'd been cured, as though this little animal’s sacrifice, smeared with some mustard and herbs, had beaten back the inevitable, and chased the flapping black wings out of his bedroom and back into the Darkness that Comes for Everything (his line, not mine). That was cooking in its cleanest sense -- food made to nurture the sick while sustaining the caretakers.
After another day of sitting quietly next to his bed, my brother and I flew back to Seattle. The day after that, I was summarily dismissed from my job. My dad outlived my career by four days, but never knew I’d been fired. When I packed my things to leave the kitchen for the last time, I left my clogs behind.
It's time for something new.