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.