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.

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