Sunday, October 26, 2008

First and Last

We’d gotten our menu assignment: beef medallions—sauteed—to be served with a sauce chausseur, along with deep-fried onion rings, potato gratin, and broccolini. The hitch was—as it had been for the last two weeks—that the completed meal had to be presented for evaluation at a specific minute. You could not be early. You could not be late. You had your minute, and that was it. Mine was 5:41.

There were things that could be done in advance. At 4:45, I heated up a gallon of water, salted it heavily when it came to a boil, blanched the broccolini, and shocked it in ice water. I rolled it between paper towels, and set it off to the side. Later, a few moments before presentation, I’d heat it up with a little butter and a splash of water, season it, and put it on the plate.

The Skills Chef had remarked several times during the previous three weeks, “If you take a shortcut now, you’ll be taking them for your whole career.”

For each minute you were off, you lost five points. I had not been off for the two weeks we’d had our appointed times. I’d watched others come up two minutes, three minutes, even 15 minutes late. My station was right near the Skills Chef’s desk, and I got to listen to them being reamed out. After they’d been evaluated, they’d take their plate and walk away. I’d watch the chef shake his head and begin scrawling on the grade sheet with his pen.

By 5:00, my gratin had been in the oven for a while. We’d run short of the right type of pan to use, so the one I was forced to employ was too small. The gratin kept bubbling up and over the sides. I could hear the liquid sizzling when it hit the bottom of the oven, and smell the burning as it cooked away.

I had been working with the same partner for three weeks, and I liked him quite a bit. We looked out for each other: turned things down when the burner was too high, got supplies, equipment and ingredients for each other, and stayed out of each other’s way when our minute came to pass. This day, he was set to go about 25 minutes before me.

I tied butcher’s string around my medallions to give them some shape. I cut up the onions for the onion rings. I chopped some parsley last minute for my partner’s garnish. I wiped my station down. It was about 5:10.

My partner and I were sharing the same sauce chasseur. I’d made it for the two of us. The sauce is usually used for chicken, but tonight it would be plated with the beef. You sauté some mushrooms until they begin to caramelize, throw in some shallots, and wait for them to turn translucent. You take some cognac and white wine, deglaze the pan so all the brown bits come up, and let them reduce by half. You add demi-glace. Cook it for a little bit, strain, and wait until you’re just ready to use it. If you’ve read the recipe instructions correctly, you’d know that some seeded, diced tomatoes get added and briefly simmered, and the whole thing is finished by adding a little butter and stirring until it dissolves.

At 5:25, the oil for the onion rings was way too hot. I turned it down, floured them, then put them into the batter. I’d let them sit for a few until it was time to fry them. I’d taken the gratin out of the oven, where it had been drooling over the edges of the pan, about 15 minutes earlier. I fired up a pan to sauté the medallions, which I’d let rest after they were done for about 7 or 8 minutes.

I tasted the sauce. It was a little sharp, but I’d add the butter right before serving, so that sharpness would be blunted. I dribbled a little clarified butter into a sauté pan, waited a moment and threw the medallions on. I’d had the heat way too high. I pulled the pan off the heat and told myself to put them back on in a moment. Time was beginning to erode much more quickly than I’d anticipated. It was almost 5:30. The onions needed to be fried. I’d forgotten about the broccolini. I fired up another pan to heat it. The kitchen clock was right in my line of sight, and the seconds were liquid and slippery. After a minute or two, the onions went in the oil. When I turned the heat down, I’d accidentally turned it off. They bobbed for a moment with a few timid bubbles popping away at the rings’ edges. I cranked the heat up and put the medallions back on the burner. A skin was forming on the sauce. I was also missing something, and I couldn’t remember what. It was 5:35.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

How I got here (part 1 of many)

When I was 12, on New Year’s Eve, my mother made a very creamy shrimp curry. I was allowed a small glass of red wine to go with the meal. The shrimp was spicy and rich; in combination with alternating sips of wine, I almost cried, it was so good. Despite countless promptings, she says she still doesn’t remember that meal.

That same year, my mother made fettucine with a tomato sauce that was fine enough to haunt my palate ever since. She had baked semolina bread to accompany the pasta and sauce. I remember dipping the bread into the sauce, and after tasting it, my entire body starting to sing. Again, we’ve tried breaking it down, but she can’t figure out how she made it.

I remember these dishes, though. And to rip off a line from Denis Johnson: I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

Anthony Bourdain--what have you wrought?

Around a year before I started at the CIA, Nelly and I were driving back to NYC from her Dad’s place in Rhinebeck, and steered off Route 9 onto the campus grounds, just to take a look.

I mentioned before: it’s hard to not be knocked out by the place—a beautiful, fountained piazza with the Hudson River hooking by, the stained glass scenes from the lives of the Saints, the Itallian villa.. But what grabbed our attention right then was the neck of a chubby young student in full uniform, flanked by his parents. A tattoo a little smaller than fist-sized was inked just below the line of his chin. It was ostentatious and looked brand new. And it looked familiar: a prison tat-style rendering of a skull, capped with chef’s toque, a long knife clenched between the teeth. The same one that’s scarred onto Anthony Bourdain’s arm and is on the cover of his cookbook.

Since every student is required to do a four-and-a-half month externship, it’s a perpetual topic of conversation. At yet another dinner where, chronologically, I could conceivably have fathered most of those seated at the table, two of the kids noted that when they had to do their extern, their number one choice was Les Halles. They wanted to cook next to Bourdain.
“You know,” I said. “he isn’t going to be there, right?”
This news was greeted with, first, a blank stare; next, dismay; and finally, anger.
“Yes,” one of them insisted. “He will be.

A few nights ago, a class had gone badly, and a few of us sat at dinner ignoring each other. Two nearby kids—I mean young—were swapping war stories about whiskey and cocaine. It seemed very important that each recognized in the other a battle-scarred, been-around-the-block veteran. I got bored and tuned out. I tuned back in when I heard one say, “Anthony Bourdain is my favorite all-time cook.” He paused for emphasis. “Actually, he’s about my favorite person on the planet.”

If, like I said earlier, that Thomas Keller is a God in the world of the CIA, I guess that would make Escoffier the holy spirit. But without question, the messiah and redeemer is Anthony Bourdain, and Kitchen Confidential is his Apocrypha.

It’s been a while since I’ve spent much recreational time in NYC’s East Village. One upside to Brooklyn’s hyperdevelopment was that it eliminated the need to hit Manhattan for thrills and kicks. But I remember the place being dense with a mob of rockers whose bands all played CBGB’s in the opening slot on a weeknight, emaciated legs jammed into black, skin-tight denim, their blood enriched with heroin, all them like living Madame Tussaud models of Johnny Thunders. The logic went roughly like this: Johnny Thunders shot up. If I shoot up, I will be Johnny Thunders. Thunders, of course, was one of many who went through the same cogitative circle looking at Keith Richards. The cautionary aspects always get ignored; Thunders is dead, and Keith looks like he is. But listen to Exile On Main Street and tell me the logic doesn’t almost make a perverse sense. Who wouldn’t want to create something that good? The logic breaks down if you believe in the transformational power of narcotics rather than in talent. But the idea of achievement through mimicry is potent and enduring.

Anthony Bourdain is a pretty fine writer: “My unemployment was running out, and the responses to the resumes I’d sent out inevitably invited me to meet with such a transparently doomed bunch of chuckleheads that even I, the seasoned carrion feeder, couldn’t stomach the prospect of working for them. There was a guy planning a Marla Maples restaurant; Marla would sing in the upstairs cocktail lounge, he confided, ensuring hordes of high-spending gourmets. The feng shui advisor was riding a cosmic groove around the half-completed restaurant when I arrived for the interview, boding poorly for the man’s prospects. I deliberately tanked the interview.” Every writer wants first and foremost to have their own voice, a set of linguistic tics that ID’s them immediately, and Bourdain has that gift in spades. He’s also got a magnetic on-screen personality, and he’s a handsome guy. The man’s cultured and literate, and pretty damn sharp. Plus he’s a riot (“Vegetarians and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans…”) If you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, you know it’s impossible to put down. I haven’t met a single person on campus who hasn’t read the book, and usually they’ve done so multiple times. The book is, person by person, probably one of the single biggest inspirations for the career choice they’ve made. More than anyone on the Food Network, more than anyone who has ever sautéed something in front of a camera, Bourdain and Kitchen Confidential are responsible for swelling the ranks of cooking schools over the last decade.

We were asked during the first day of CIA orientation how many of us wanted to have our own cooking show. I was stunned and slightly horrified to see the majority of hands in the room go shooting up in the air. Not, as I discovered afterwards while eavesdropping on a number of conversations, a show like Emeril or Giada or Sandra Lee, but a show like No Reservations. I guess, ultimately, that does beat the alternative.

Charlie Parker was cultured and literate. Keith Richards—channeling the ghost of Oscar Wilde with rotted teeth and a backbeat—is cultured and literate. William Burroughs was cultured and literate (Johnny Thunders always struck me as being a little slow, but I’d be happy to be corrected). A good rule of thumb is that if you’re the innovator, you’re probably a bit sharper than average. If you’re the mimic, a lot less so.

When you’re done making stock, you can use the bones and mirepoix a second time to make a second stock. This is called a remouillage. It’s pretty pale, and really weak.

A lot of us on campus who’ve read Kitchen Confidential have enough perspective to recognize the sheen of romanticization laid over those stories. A lot don’t. In their view the cook is a pirate. If you haven’t snorted blow off of a waitress’s breasts, you have not had an authentic kitchen experience. These guys tend to fetishize speed—speed and quantity over quality and everything else. They seem to believe that Bourdain’s penis is gargantuan—as long and lethal as a chef’s knife. They seem to want people to believe theirs measures up. It’s at least where a lot of them seem to keep their hands when they walk or stand still, and they’ve affected a serious swagger.

Bourdain can knowledgeably toss the names Saulnier, Soltner, Bocuse, et al into his writing. He’s got a lot of knowledge to back himself up, even if he is by his own admission a workman rather than innovator. Even when he gets a little drunk on his own mythology (“They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived. All the line cooks were hunched over Armalites and M-16s…” Oh, come on now. You’re pushing it.), he has enough smarts and irony to know there are other and better trails he could have taken down the same path (“I went for the easy money,” he laments at one point). By contrast, during one in-class presentation on Antonin Careme—grandfather of Haute Cuisine—given by fellow students (one of whom had been at the table talking about Les Halles and his externship), chaud froid was repeatedly pronounced “chod froyd.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

New Posts a-Comin'

I have my midterm tomorrow--making fresh pasta, starch gelatinization, risotto, the protein levels of various flours, and what the hell a chelazae is (for the record, it's a set of knotty cords that lie on either side of the yolk in an egg. I just realized I'll have to go back and re-read what function it serves).

After the midterm, I'll be back up and running.