Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chef Philosophy, 201

“The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.” 
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

When I learned Food Riot was shuttering the shop, I stopped wrestling with topics to write about, much less actually work on them. The piece about bok choy: Abandoned. The one about the Miracle on 46th Street? Nope. Pie Whimsy? Well, that one will live to see another day, once I get the recipe right. I can’t not write about my first successful lattice.

Rather than work on new pieces, I had a look at the work I did for that site. On the whole, I’m pretty pleased with it. Lord knows I could always use a good edit, but overall, not terrible. You have to break a few oeufs to make an oeuvre, right?

One of the pieces I reread with some pleasure was my first, written a year ago, back when I was so excited and happy to have the opportunity to write for another site. I like my blog, but it was fun to write for a larger audience, comprising more than my immediate family, some friends, and the odd cook who stumbled onto the site because she needs a new pair of clogs.

This particular piece was about Chef Philosophy, and it was a metaphor quiche – Sisyphus and the nature of restaurant work playing the part of ham, a hunter’s chase through the woods in search of a white stag in place of swissy custard. I hadn’t noticed the heady mixture, gazing as I was at my own navel. But after my dad called the mixed metaphor a “head-snapper,” I took another look and chatted with him about what may be my new favorite grammatical term. In spite of the head-snapper, his comments about the quiche-piece weren’t negative. Rather, he gave me another angle to consider.

Leaving the bounding hunt through the forest alone for just a moment, let’s look again at the idea that while work in general is Sisyphean, restaurant work epitomizes the nature of Sisyphus’s job to the nth degree. Every shift begins when you shoulder your boulder, every shift ends when you reach the top of the hill: The last pair of sliders during a late happy hour rush, SOLD; the final stack of pancakes, plated and windowed! The mats pulled, the floors swept and mopped, the till counted – all part of the restaurant’s daily cycle, a cycle which occurs during every dining period you provide. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The boulder reaches the top of the hill, and then it rolls back down.

For whatever it's worth, in my mind’s eye the boulder rolls down a hill a lot like the Ponderosa-dotted hills surrounding Boulder, my childhood home, which is, I understand, a somewhat  unuseful conflation of imagery. A boulder meets a Boulder, coming down the hill. Brains, man. Wacky stuff.

Anyway, even if we run down the hill because we are in the middle of a series of doubles, or clopening, or opening a new restaurant, we can’t beat the boulder. It has rolled, crashed, tumbled, bounced, and careened through the woods, back to the base of the hill faster than we can goat-hop down the slope. We shouldn’t even try to beat it. Instead of racing back down, let’s order a beer at Tantalus’s Table, a hot spot on the hill top (despite the owner’s extreme crankiness) and catch up with each other.

After all, the boulder isn't going anywhere; it came to rest at the bottom of the hill, after smashing through an abandoned barn, scattering a herd of mule deer, decapitating a fir, and crashing to a stop half-in and half-out of the creek. I will be wet to my thighs when I get behind that thing and shove. Possibly hypothermic.

When we've finished our beers, I'll start back down. But look there – a clearing, a fallen log where I can rest for a while, a moment, before getting my ass back down the hill and pushing again. A breeze whispers through the pine branches, subtle scents of vanilla play with the smell of mint and wet stone rising from a nearby rill. Maybe I’ll simply sit quietly and consider the elusive white stag, a chef’s sublime quarry, and the mysterious ways in which line cooks are (or are not) motivated. With no Food Riot to write for, no restaurant to cook for, and barring any unforeseen existential crises, I can sit for a good minute before I have to push again.

Except – the dog needs to go out, the dishes must be washed, agent letters must be written, and the bloody book must be rid of darlings. Perhaps this particular chapter in my career is not just a walk down a hill, but a chance to see, to fully apprehend, the sheer number and variety of rocks, boulders, stones, and pebbles we all push up hills, all the time, every day, as well as having the opportunity to see some folks I missed while I was occupied. I have momentarily abandoned my primary, half-submerged boulder to work on other things that will, no doubt, appear cyclical when they are at last completed, the next one begun. But seeing it as a cycle, with the big push followed by a pleasant jaunt, brings me closer still to understanding Camus. It’s not that Sisyphus is content because he has a job, maybe even one with benefits; he is content because he understands the nature of work, that, as with a latticed pie, effort brings reward, but pushing upwards is only half of the story. 

Next time on Chef Philosophy: Tantalus and the Benefits of Delaying Gratification (possibly until the end of time), or, Forget Fire: The Gods Offered Two Marshmallows to Humankind.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Radicchio is the Thing with Feathers

As seen in slightly different form on, part of the New Riot Media Group.  

A  few years ago, I put together a Valentine’s Day menu which included such treats as “The Broken Hearted Caesar” (hard-bias cut romaine, traditional Caesar accouterments, fried oysters), the “Soft Underbelly of Love” (pork belly, plate action, tangy driz), and “Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart” (grilled radicchio, shard of pistachio-plum brittle thrust into it, balsamic redux). This particular menu didn’t sell very well: the servers, save one or two, didn’t understand the references – either what they were or why they were there – and the diners really just wanted a seared salmon or a steak.  Maybe a duck breast, for the daring few. They weren’t there for the Chef’s not-altogether-positive ruminations on love, expressed through snarky menu names; it was Valentine’s Day, for crying out loud.

I was frustrated by the menu’s overall sales, but I felt a little bit sad the radicchio had had so few takers. Not only did the dish’s name inspire in me an upwelling of hilarity, a variety of glee I usually feel only when told jokes about what numbers say or do to each other, but “Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart” was understated in plating, well-rounded in flavor, gorgeous and delicious. And no one wanted to try it.

But I understand why not. 

Bitter is the last flavor we learn to like. A child will look at you with horror – real horror, like, Why are you trying to kill me? horror – if you present her with a frisee salad, or a dish of sautéed rapini. There is a basis for such terror – nature often uses bitterness to express toxicity, as any bird who has gone for a certain kind of caterpillar will tell you (if it weren’t dead). Our tongue’s taste buds demonstrate a certain amount of variation in flavor receptivity; they are not laid out quite as simply as sweet at the front, salty and sour on the sides, umami everywhere (maybe add pungency and astringency to the overall gestalt of flavors), and bitter at the back. But, that bitterness is tasted most strongly at the back of the tongue does seems like nature’s last chance to exit the highway, a last chance to spit out willow bark and think about its flavor later, like when you’re inventing aspirin.

Early experiences with bitterness include poking at cafeteria grapefruits, spitting out a mouthful of gin and tonic, and being dumped in my senior year via yearbook inscription. It is in my nature, however, to find balance, and now I taste the sweet in the ruby red, raise toasts with gins and tonics, and will maybe go on a date again someday… avoiding the bitter does not make sweet sweeter. Quite the opposite. Cue the beginning of my exploration of bitterness as a flavor, in food and life. Let the broadening of an emotional and culinary palate begin!

Top of the list of things to try was radicchio. With its striking combination of white and burgundy, colors I wanted to eat, hang as curtains, or wear like a boyfriend’s letter jacket, this bitter “green” is an object of absolute beauty to me. A quartered head looks like the feathers of an exotic bird, an animal time forgot. A rough chop of radicchio provides color and flavor in salads and sautés, a backdrop against which other ingredients can pop and shine. When radicchio is lightly marinated in a vinegary solution and grilled, flavors of char, acid, and bitterness combine to create a taste sensation I associate with being the survivor of a shipwreck off the north coast of France in the early nineteenth century – brackish, alkaline, salty, and as sweet as finding a bed of rushes and reeds.

More recent experiences with bitterness include discovering the Pacific Northwest’s extremely hoppy IPAs, ordering bitter melon in Chinatown, and losing my job. There are many times of the year in Seattle when any kind of blow to self, any experience with bitterness, is compounded by a low sky and half-frozen rain rattling against single-paned windows. But this is not that time. While it may be a little while longer before I feel grateful for an unlooked-for major-life-change, right now I have sunny skies, a hot grill, a feathery heart of radicchio, and my friends, who are toasting the summer with Negronis. I have time to think hopefully upon what’s next.  Right now, I will savor the sweet.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The French Toast Code

As seen in a slightly different form on, part of the Riot New Media Group. 

The relationship between Industry Professionals and Brunch is a mixed bag, at best. Take a staff of hung-over, sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated servers and cooks, and have them interact meaningfully with customers who are themselves hung-over and sleep-deprived to varying degrees, customers who may be eating with friends, or slogging through an awkward morning-after breakfast with someone whose name is either Brad or Brian, Janie or Jenny. Invariably there is a multi-generational table where Grandmother can’t hear what anyone is saying because the music is too loud, while little Timmy sneaks eleven packets of raw sugar from the coffee service, pours them into his water, and drinks it. Fifteen minutes later, Timmy is zipping through the restaurant making truck noises, while the servers dodge and weave to avoid him. Grandmother falls asleep after her third Bloody Mary. At the next table, Brad/Brian and Janie/Jenny watch with the shared contentment of two people who realize they have something in common, after all. They plan a second date and agree they’ll never have children. Their contemporary at table 136 gently shakes Grandmother awake because the server just dropped the bill, and brunch for seven is an expensive proposition.

We hammered out a Brunch program at the place I last worked in February, while the Seahawks were distracting most of our audience and we had a few weeks to work out the kinks. Years of working in houses with busy brunches made me ever-so-slightly leery – I didn’t want my adrenal gland to fail because of a misfired order of white toast. I wanted our Brunch to be super yummy, and extremely executable. I wanted to capture the traditional, the foods people crave when they wake up on Saturdays and Sundays, while putting a slight spin on some of the items to make a dish more in keeping with the restaurant’s aesthetic: Make it pretty; make it good; somehow reflect the intersection between comfort and elegance; and try to juxtapose those two qualities in plating. 

One of those dishes, French Toast, captures these disparate elements pretty well. Made with baguette soaked in a custard of eggs, milk, sugar, pinch of salt, pinch of cardamom, and pinch of cinnamon, our Pain Perdu is cooked on the flat top, dusted with powdered sugar, served with a Three Citrus Syrup and Beecher’s Honeyed Blank Slate, a young cheese texturally similar to ricotta. Our French Toast hits a few chords – sweet and tangy with the cheese and citrus-rind syrup, an interesting alternative to butter and maple syrup, classic but redefined… For me, however, the dish hit the Proustian Chord most strongly…

Flashback to 1980.

Saturday morning after a sleepover and my friend’s dad is making French Toast. An already promising morning – watching cartoons in our pajamas! – turned into a defining moment in my culinary education as I fell head-over-heels in love with the eggy-buttery-powdered sugar combo. I was amazed by the way the bread acted as a vessel for either jam, OR syrup. Or blackberry AND apricot jams. Sweet little rafts, conveyances for even more sugar. The French, thought I, as I helped myself to a third or fourth piece, the French really know how to make toast. I watched him make a second batch and was absolutely blown away by the simplicity of the process. You mean to say, I thought, with just eggs, a splash of milk, some sugar, cinnamon and bread, maybe some powdered sugar or syrup or jam or whatever, you get French Toast? A breakfast so much greater than the sum of its parts as to astonish.

This moment of clarity was an early example of burgeoning culinary independence – not long after this pivotal breakfast there came an evening when we children were in charge of finding our own dinner, a “Pick Night,” a fairly regular occurrence when our mother was working. As per usual, I stood in front of the open refrigerator for far too long, computing the work versus satisfaction of a fried egg sandwich or a bowl of spaghetti. As I ran through steps and ingredients, I remembered I had another trick up my sleeve: Bread, check, eggs, check, milk, sugar, cinnamon, powdered sugar, check, check check! Butter, check! We were GTG for French Toast! That night, I Frenched an entire loaf of Roman Meal and watched with enormous satisfaction as my siblings chose their own adventures – apricot jam and a spot of maple? Sure! Strawberry jam and a piece of cheddar? Do it!

The years of Brunch service, of kitchen work in general, may have blinded me somewhat to the intricacies of breakfast cooking. Maybe because of repetition, anxiety, or a wandering mind, I don’t always see what I do. I suspect the same holds true for mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and other trades people, but there are those “open-refrigerator moments” when things click together in new ways. When I realized – and retained – that eggs, bread and milk meant more than a fried egg sandwich and a milk back, I shifted from being fed to becoming a feeder.

 I’d cracked the French Toast Code. There was no going back.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Notes from the Prep List: Eggplant

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the Riot New Media Group, October 3rd, 2013.

"Somebody brought a few foxglove leaves in with some spinach from the garden...." - Agatha Christie, Postern of Fate

Maybe because I’ve read too many inter-war British murder mysteries to trust any member of the nightshade family, or maybe because my expectations are always baffled by the slightly slimy reality, I’ve struggled with eggplant for years. All the breading, soaking, and searing in the world won’t make an eggplant cutlet into a Wiener schnitzel no matter what it looks like on the plate. Baba ganoush is delicious and nutritious but it’s as drab looking as wallpaper paste. And when people claim to love eggplant, I can’t help but view them with a Miss Marple-esqe suspicion – if the butler didn’t do it, then the murderous culprit was definitely the gardener who substituted deadly nightshade for salad greens; who could love such a fiend? 

So, when eggplant appeared on a prep list of never-tried preparations, I was skeptical. Eggplant gets all squishy when cooked, the flesh texturally similar to an overripe banana, the skin as tough as a shark’s. In a restaurant where everything is beautiful, and on a menu with no room for the word “gloopy,” I was even a little bit balky. But cooking is about learning, and the culinary horizon recedes even as you think you’ve gained ground because quail eggs no longer give you the heebie jeebies…. There was nothing for it but to sally forth. 

My first step was to make a mental shift from the name “eggplant,” which conjures images of a sulfurous garden patch littered with shells and broken yolks, to the more European “aubergine,” which sounds like the name of a French exchange student who hasn’t yet lost her baby fat. (I like the idea of Aubergine and Courgette sharing a tiny apartment during their second semester at NYU, meeting for falafels in Washington Square, struggling to make ends meet, but generally having a good time in the big American city. Courgette has more boyfriends, but Aubergine finds her true love: math major and trombone aficionado Celeriac.)

The aubergines in the walk-in are beautiful, it’s true. A hotel pan of purple. Helpful website “Cook’s Thesaurus” lists no fewer than 14 varieties of eggplants, as well as their respective names, regions, skin-thicknesses, and relative bitterness. (A complete collection of eggplants from around the world is as diverse as the students in one of Aubergine’s night-school ESL classes.) We’re using Japanese eggplant, which are less bulbous than the American variety, and less bitter. Instead of the dark, brooding purple of a mid-winter night sky, the Japanese eggplants are cheerful and bright, like parasols or lilacs or silk blouses. Their looks are not their problem, for sure.

The recipe has me split the eggplant lengthwise, roll the halves in olive oil, salt, and black pepper, line them on a large sheet pan (which I oiled beforehand) and roast until tender. Which happens a little faster than you might think. When they’re pulled from the oven, the bright purple is all gone and the vegetables resemble old black ballet slippers. Yum! That’s not sad-making at all!

After they’ve cooled, scrape the flesh into a large stainless steel bowl and add a good amount of nuoc cham. Wait, what? That’s right. We’re not climbing into the northern Italian Alps for this eggplant dish, nor are we stepping off the gangplank in Tunisia. We’re in Hanoi, baby.  (That the eggplants are Japanese and the preparation is Vietnamese is just a coincidence; you are not getting involved in a land-war in Asia.)

Nuoc cham is a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce made with garlic, chili peppers, lime juice, and fish sauce. I like adding a pinch of sugar, a little Sambal, and I think thinly sliced Serrano peppers are delicious in this. I’ve found that “Three Crabs” fish sauce draws the fewest cats, but do expect a certain, um, robustness to the smell.

For twenty split eggplants, add two cups or even more of nuoc cham. Right now the preparation will resemble a slippery pile of sardines, or newspaper ready for a papier-mâché project. Add a half cup of mint chiffonade and a full cup of basil chiffonade. Taste for salt and spice. You may notice the flavor of the eggplant has become slightly sweet, you many also notice yourself eating a lot of this before you label the container and put it on the prep shelf. Hmmm. Perhaps the problem was trying to make aubergine something it is not – it is spongey, it is weird, it isn’t ever going to sear perfectly, and maybe that’s okay….tasting it again as an accompaniment to scallops or trout, after the plate is finished with another member of the nightshade family – tomatoes, or perhaps a few quarters of roasted tomatillos – I realize I’m in the presence of deliciousness. The dish is greater than the sum of its parts; this is one of the reasons we cook.

After making this dish a couple of times, and another in which the eggplant is cubed, sautéed with (so much) olive oil and garlic, deglazed with balsamic vinegar and later folded together with similarly prepared Fennel, Courgettes, Red Onions, and Basil, I found myself liking Aubergine more and more. I’m not quite ready to embrace her and kiss both cheeks. But I’ll let her into the kitchen.  

All Summer in a Melon

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the Riot New Media Group, July 31st, 2013
Professional cooks live on scraps of rib-eye trim, bowls of rice cribbed from the steam table, and the odd sandwich slapped together on the fly, eaten while crouched behind the line before the next slew of tickets hit. On days off, I might order a pizza or some Thai food, or go out for a burger and a beer, perfectly happy to let someone else do the cooking. But still, even with the relatively recent arrival of other people’s children, even with the responsibilities of jobs and Grown-Up Stuff, there are occasional evenings when my friends, family, and I carve out enough time to cook and eat together.

The last time this happened I decided to put together a watermelon salad. A simple affair of watermelon, cucumber, jicama, serrano peppers, a lot of cilantro and mint, a splash of vinegar, and just enough salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Perfect for a hot July evening, the salad is a refreshing accompaniment to grilled foods and a flavorful antidote for dehydration. I went with cubes of various sizes for the melon, cukes, and jicama, and thin rounds for the serranos. Pleasantly Sesame-Streetian shapes, comfortably within my Cheffy OCD parameters. The herbs were a rough-chopped green confetti.  Wee! 

My brother tasted it and made a face — “What is that white stuff?”



I’m laughing now; he thinks food should be taken in capsule form and the inevitable food fanfare of these evenings is almost lost on him. Tasting a spicy-savory version of tried and true watermelon was brave…but his face! Oh, the hilarity.

The two of us stood in the kitchen and talked jicama, among other things, while our friends put the children to bed. But I couldn’t stop eating the salad. I’d ask a question and then stuff my face while he answered. When the four of us sat down to eat, I grudgingly shared the third I’d left in the bowl. But my spoon kept wandering back. I badly wanted to forgo any semblance of manners and simply tip the bowl back, just guzzle the sweet-salty-spicy melon water.

As the summer wears on – and I’m lucky out here in Seattle where temperatures rarely top ninety – my thoughts turn again and again to the blatant, unapologetic refreshment of a watermelon salad. Throw in some feta! Top it with toasted pepitas! Make a black pepper syrup! Such a forgiving, amenable ingredient, as well as a handy way to transport water across deserts. So, I guess Watermelon Salad with Serranos and Friends was my second favorite thing I ate in July, beating Fried Chicken Bits Over Reheated Rice, and Grits with Some Stuff. There was a Cheese and Tomato Sandwich coming in a close third, but the winner turned out to be an exercise in simplicity.

With watermelons on the brain, I recently went ahead and bought a small one from one of the vendors down at Pike Place Market before heading in for another long, busy shift at the restaurant. Coming home from work: late, tired, too thirsty for water, too dehydrated for vodka, I opened my little fridge and there it was! I had forgotten all about it!

Next to a heel of bread, a knuckle of cheddar, and a short stack of mostly empty to-go containers, there was my favorite July treat: A watermelon split and devoured in the light of a propped open refrigerator door, the juice puddling a bit on the checkered floor. Standing there in the dimly lit kitchen, I wiped the juice from my chin with the back of my hand and let my mind wander. Summer and rind, sunshine, sprinklers, kiddy pools, and hot grass. The shopping trip for a new Trapper Keeper still weeks away. Hot dogs, grape soda, road-trip Tropicana orange juice. Dampened dust, tepid lemonade. The mild melancholy of having no seeds to spit. The urge to go jump in a lake. I was slurping up all the Julys, past, present, and future, the watermelon refreshing my spirit. Truly delicious.

Chef Philosophy, 101

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the Riot New Media Group, July 8th, 2013

There are as many philosophies about food and cooking as there are items on the Cheesecake Factory’s menu. Locavores, pescatarians, vegans, raw foodists all have their mantras, just as junk-foodies lick their orange fingers after finishing a bag of Cheezy Credos.  Restaurants exist to feed this diverse audience, a spectrum of people too tired to cook, those who are celebrating, those who read about the fried pig face in Seattle’s free weekly and simply MUST try it, and those who eat only sesame seeds mixed with fireweed honey and kale.
On the other side of the kitchen door, we have the people actually making the food, who labor in conditions similar to foundries and salt mines, who somehow manage the Sisyphean nature of restaurant cooking with aplomb (mild aplomb. Sometimes rage). Fries into the basket, basket into the oil, fries into the bowl, fries onto the plate. Repeat until you die. Don’t forget the salt.
As so many aspects of restaurant work resemble pushing a boulder up a hill, the conclusion drawn by Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus is comforting, in a peculiarly French way. He wrote, “It is the struggle itself….one must believe Sisyphus is happy.” I had heard a different translation (I think in the movie “Party Girl”) that used the word “content,” but either way, the implication that the endless struggle to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, or cook sliders in the low, dark purgatory of Happy Hour, is in some way fulfilling, despite (or because of) the futility.

(The French are always comforting us in kitchens: the smell of shallots and thyme simmering in butter, a bouquet garni infusing a stock with bay, thyme and parsley, the way sauces bound by liaison have a fuller, richer flavor than those thickened by cream alone…)

Camus’s conclusion may explain why cooks stay on the line instead of working in the Front of House, where they would make three times the money – there are less existential reasons to stay in the kitchen, most of them related to temperament and alcohol intake – but line cooks are, by and large, a proud folk, not necessarily happy, but scarred, burned, marked and fulfilled in some way by work that barely pays the rent. If a line cook becomes restless with his or her particular boulder-hill combo, he or she can go into management, a career move bringing them closer to the real Sisyphus, as all accounts of the original have him down as a bit of a hubristic jerk, which is so much more like a Chef than a Cook.

There are Chefs who bully, threaten, yell, stomp, rule by fear rather than love. There are those who coddle their cooks, who serve them mint tea with honey during service. (Not really.) The philosophy behind the behavior of the angry Chef goes so much farther than simply being narcissistic outbursts, or exhibitionist stylings of a coward who is in so far over his head that he must resort to scaring the men and women who work near him. The truly great, scary Chefs are like that because they are in pursuit of the sublime, the moment when plating is finished, garnishes placed, and Beauty, impermanent, fragile, meant-to-be-devoured Beauty, looks back at them from the plate. The pursuit of this particular venaison blanc requires a team of lean, fast, line dogs, who love the taste of the hunt more than the security of health insurance or IRAs. The pursuit of excellence requires very high standards and no small measure of ferocity. One bad Yelp, one spawning oyster, and suddenly the table is tipped onto the floor of mediocrity. Excellence is the quarry for all Chefs, but the angry ones tend to get the most press.

My Chef philosophy rests as much with the public as it does on the shoulders of the cooks. We are not there to gallop across the countryside for ourselves. We are here to feed the others, the ones who chose us for the moments in their lives, the birthdays, anniversaries, idle Tuesdays, or sorrowful Saturdays. The moment a diner walks through the door, they have decided to include us, a gang of tattooed strangers, in their very lives. To me, that inclusion is a gift of astonishing worth, a jewel worth hunting for, and instead of devouring the prize, tearing apart the stag, and lifting bloodstained muzzles to the moon and howling (with whiskey in hand), I’ve tried to teach the cooks a philosophy that looks out to the dining room, toward a calmer, more sustainable quest for excellence, a sense of contentment. Next thing you know, I’ll be brewing minted tea.

Notes From the Prep List: Gnocchi

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the New Riot Media Group, July 15th, 2013
"Now and forever now." - Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Somehow, in the eighteen years I’ve spent in kitchens, I managed to work every station, climbed from the Hobart dish machine to the dizzying heights of becoming a Chef de Cuisine, ran a multi-million dollar restaurant for three years and thirteen menus, and never worked as a prep cook. Dishwasher, yes. Grill cook, Sous Chef, Lead Line, yes yes yes. But it wasn’t until I decided to step down from management for a minute that I discovered the allure of the Prep Shift. Even though I am again a Sous Chef, because I can't seem to help myself, I don’t work on the Line. I wallow in the luxury of simply making food, as though I am preparing for a huge dinner party every night.  Of course, there is a bit more stress (and fewer martinis) than if I were cooking at home. There is an element of riverboat gambling to what I do – I look at the numbers, plan my night, and push my chips in; if I’m on a roll, none of the cooks will rush over to me with wild eyes and sweaty faces, waving an empty six-pan around. I will hit my marks and the food will be ready before the guys need it. It usually works. But some of the items are a bit process heavy – I can bust out blanched rapini in under ninety seconds, but then there are the spicy-sweet accompaniments to charcuteries, the forcemeats themselves, the tiny-cubed caponata, and the humble little dough balls we call “gnocchi.”
What begins as a tub of ricotta, egg yolks, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt, white pepper, and flour spends some time in a stainless steel bowl, a lump of dough, resting, a bland illustration of potential energy. This mass goes through several iterations: The rolled snakes, the cut pieces, like pillows, perfect for a tiny bed and a clothespin-sized doll who doesn’t mind getting a little flour in her hair. And then the finished pieces, grooved and thumb-dimpled, the declivity perfect for a single drop of sauce, one flake of parsley.
The longer the cut pieces sit, the more they want to return to their original state. The longer the dough itself sits on the table, the greater the chance one edge of it will begin to crack with unincorporated flour. So I have to work fast. There are two distinct flour piles on either side of the table. One pile for my palms so I can roll a chunk of dough into a shape I haven’t really dabbled with since kindergarten play-dough and high school pottery. It’s a long cylinder, slightly smaller across than the diameter of my ring finger. With a bench scraper, I start cutting the pieces – if it were my ring finger, the first cut occurs just between the cuticle and the first knuckle. These first cuts, these first few gnocchi, mean I’m out of the woods – if the line needs more, well, see: We have more! The gnocchi exist, only to a point, but this is a good point at which to have arrived. In gambling terms, I’m now holding a pair of twos instead of bluffing with a six-high hand.
I have time for these reflections because the Pantry cook called in sick and the other prep cook is trapped on the line making salads and desserts instead of standing next to me, either rolling and cutting or rolling across the board and onto the sheet tray. The thirty minute, two-person prep task has become a Buzz Lightyear affair, the snakes and pillows stretching and piling to infinity and beyond. I have two choices. I can go insane, or I can roll the gnocchi and get on with the next task in about an hour, depending.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll, roll, roll.
The gnocchi are like snowflakes, no two alike, or, as I prefer rolling across the diagonal, the little gnocchi resemble sea-shells, the sheet tray is a strewn beach.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll.
There is a closed-in-the-closet sensation below my belly, claustrophobia brought on by feeling trapped in a never-ending task. I think, I’ll throw away a pound of dough. No one will be the wiser.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll.
But then I pass the mid-point, take the filled tray to the freezer and line the second with parchment paper.
Start again. Rolling and cutting. Rolling and cutting.
The clumps stick together like eight-year-olds in a haunted house.
Roll, roll, roll, roll.
The tension has given way to calm, the realization that this too shall pass. I will reach the end, roll the last gnocchi. In quantum terms, in a parallel universe, this task is finished, and gnocchi exist in a perpetuity of completion… It’s okay. Rolling gnocchi is finite, like life, love, peace, and hot showers. The task, like so many seemingly-endless prep list items, has changed the way I approach any seemingly endless task. Knitting, writing, walking, reading The Classics: Just one sticky little square after another.
The pillows-turned-shells will be blanched, portioned, cooked and served over pork. My sense of touching and overcoming the Infinite dissolves into knowing I have created something delicious, with time to spare. My pair of twos held.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Master and the Marmalade

 As seen in a slightly different form on, part of the Riot New Media Group

"...and you will agree that a spotted dog or a drowned baby is hollow mockery, a whited sepulchre, without it is made with suet. There is an art in puddings, to be sure; but what is art without suet?"
 - Jack Aubrey upon being presented with a decent spotted dog, The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O'Brian

Yesterday I finished The Surgeon’s Mate, book seven of twenty in the incredible seafaring adventures written by Patrick O’Brian and starring Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. True to form, the book was delicious, and I couldn’t be more delighted to have thirteen books ahead of me. 

As the stories are set during the Napoleonic Wars, my vocabulary and diction are a little odd right now, as I find myself saying things like, “Handsomely, handsomely now..let’s scud along under close-reefed topsails.” But that’s okay. My dog is my primary audience, and while he isn’t great with American English, he knows well enough that a “close-reefed topsail” means a falling barometer and rising winds. Best make do with the oilcloth or peacoat when walking to the park, and leave the umbrella at home. Not only do the books give the reader a hyper-detailed look at a bygone era, they are accidental food writing at its best. There are descriptions of messes shared with other captains in ports-of-call all over the world, a life-saving grove of cold-weather cabbages found when Aubrey’s ship creeps into Desolation Island (book five; so good!) and the food enjoyed with family and friends when the captain puts in to England for a moment and visits his wife, Sophie, and his “turnip-faced” children at Ashgrove Cottage. 

Menus throughout the books range from prison victuals to sumptuous feasts. Many of you probably remember the 2003 movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, in which Russell Crowe played a charming, battle-hungry Captain Aubrey, and Paul Bettany brought a nice spark to Dr. Maturin (though he was too handsome for the part – in the books, Maturin’s looks are most often described as “froglike”). The movie made me feel as though the entire cast was having fun and I’ve watched it at least six times. While the primary action of the film, and half of its title, was pulled from book ten, the screenwriters plucked moments from a few of the other books and threw them in, making a bit of a muddle, or a stew (maybe a burgoo?), which won’t make it easier to write another movie, which they are doing, right? (RIGHT?) 

The movie has a great scene in which the officers and Dr. Maturin are at their mess. After quaffing copious amounts of wine, the officers had moved on to their nightly glasses of port. A somewhat florid Captain Aubrey brings Maturin’s attention to two weevils traversing the table and asks him which is the better one. Dr. Maturin sighs, the naturalist among barbarians, and says something like, “All things being equal in terms of diet, environment, and the natural proclivities of the species, that one there,” he nudges a weevil with the end of a knife, “is clearly the greater weevil.” And in a crashing good humor, Jack Aubrey cries with delight, “Oh ho, I have you there! For in the Royal Navy we must always choose the lesser of two weevils!”

Ha ha! I love puns, to my universal discredit, so this moment filled me delight. One really must always choose thusly. I don’t like weevils, though, and was dismayed by how many of the tiny squirming insects wriggle across the pages of the series. But their presence is simply another example of O’Brian’s detailed descriptions of shipboard food, shipboard life, really. During my own sailing adventure, we had to take precautions against stowaway weevils by transferring any grains – cereal, flour, corn meal – into plastic containers and getting the cardboard off the boat straightaway before the eggs hatched. 

(Weevils are not the only animals aboard O’Brian’s ships. Dr. Maturin’s scientific curiosity drives him to bring all kinds of species aboard, whether to draw, dissect, or simply observe. There are chapters devoted to the determined alcoholism of a captured sloth, another in which a pregnant prison-mouse enjoys crumbs proffered on the end of a spoon, and dozens of other incidents featuring animals living, dead, preserved in barrels of salt and vinegar, and even one or two extinct species make quiet appearances, including a counterpane made from a dodo.) 

During my sailing adventure I learned quite a bit about cooking on a gimbaled stove. One part terrifying, two parts timing. If you open the oven when the ship pitches to port, you must pull a hot pan uphill. If you open the oven as the ship lists to starboard, everything in the oven wants to slide out onto the floor BUT that’s the perfect moment to grab the pan and get it to the top of the stove as the ship rolls back to portside. Sometimes sailing seems like nothing more than a series of unexpected intersections with gravity, and that my aunt was willing and able to make popcorn – already the scariest food in the world – during a blue-water passage between Vanuatu and New Caledonia was a source of absolute amazement. 

There isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re a newbie at sea, so I read a lot, including the first book in the series. Being on a boat made Master and Commander more interesting and also educational despite the differences in number and type of sails, size of boat, size of crew, and number of guns. We had three sails, four if we were to fly the spinnaker, on a 41-foot sailboat housing five people. No cannons or guns that I knew of. Captain Aubrey’s usual command had 21 sails, each raised or lowered in a beautiful choreography based on water and wind, anywhere between 100 and 150 men and boys, and many, many guns. Given my limited experience on boats, even I could tell that Lucky Jack was a very skilled sailor and a terrifying opponent in battle. A man of many appetites. 

For restaurant professionals the books are treasure troves of comparisons. The Naval hierarchy, so similar to a kitchen’s chain of command, is one thing, along with the necessity for order and discipline, everyone’s reliance on routine, and the shared tendency of both Naval and restaurant folk to hit the grog a little too hard every now and then. Delightfully familiar moments occur when two captains describe an up-and-comer in terms almost identical to those used by restaurant managers when it’s time to promote from within. 

And, perhaps because I live in Seattle, I’m continuously struck by how much the two principals really enjoy a nice cup of coffee, no matter the breeze or bullets. A calm prelude to battles won with smoke, noise, shattered wood, flying splinters, and cannonballs crashing through the netting, while the sea rises beneath you, the wind howls through the rigging, and blood flows from the scuppers; a strong cup of coffee beforehand sets one up amazingly. Perhaps half a dozen eggs, a rasher of bacon, and a loaf of buttered toast with marmalade, as well. No sense going into battle on an empty tum. 

In The Surgeon’s Mate, food plays a slightly larger role than in the other stories. Instead of simply providing background details about the lives of Royal Navy men during the early 1800s, and thereby adding levels of verisimilitude that make the books every bit as enjoyable as any Jane Austen, more so if you like your action outside of a drawing room, or if you like action, any, at all, the food in The Surgeon’s Mate provides the essential ingredients for the story’s denouement. I won’t spill the cat from the bag, but shipwreck, potential torture, a bucket of freshwater crawfish, perhaps one too many cream-based sauces on the road from Brittany to Paris, and the good Doctor’s well-timed splash of laudanum, spare our heroes for the next adventure. I’m sure there will be both coffee and marmalade, and maybe, as they’re headed for Turkey, there will be a pivotal moment involving baklava. But now I’m just being greedy.