Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Whatever Doesn’t Keller Makes Me a Stronger Chef


Monday morning Alpana didn’t feel like going to work. Though she’d slept all night, she was still exhausted. She said she felt like she hadn’t had a weekend. This was partially my fault. Mostly my fault. I’d had us embark on another kitchen undertaking, one even more labor-intensive, emotionally and physically draining than the last. We began Saturday afternoon and finished late Sunday night. Now I, too, felt misaligned. I was hungover, and hadn’t even had that much to drink. There’d been some vodka and Tempranillo and Prosecco, but that wasn’t it. I was stuffed, but it seemed like from more than just too much chicken and brownies. We’d overdosed on cooking.

Just as we’d done with Momofuku the week before, I wanted my sensei to help me take a celebrity chef’s cookbook, plan a menu Friday night, shop for ingredients and begin preparing on Saturday, cook the following morning and afternoon, and then present our results to friends for the Sunday dinner series we’d informally begun hosting. I’d considered being true to the inherent premise of Chach and Chang, to continue cooking through his book, find several ultimately delicious but inordinately painstaking to prepare dishes, but you can only serve your guests so much Asian food. A new book had arrived earlier in the week, and we’d been perusing its contents. This chef, like Chang, is touted, revered, resplendent with accolades, but based on the opposite coast, in a sleepy decidedly un-East Village hamlet called Yountville, buried under the grape vines outside of Napa (yes, I know he has New York restos, but ignore that for narrative purposes). This time we used Thomas Keller’s ad hoc at home.

I’d visited ad hoc before. We didn’t actually get to eat there, or at Keller’s mainstay, French Laundry (even with connections; they were closed the night we were in town for a private party), but I’d been intrigued by Thomas Keller (at first because his name is so similar to one of my favorite writers, Thomas Beller), and so when I discovered the existence of this cookbook, I couldn’t wait to see it. The book’s subtitle is “family-style recipes,” so my initial suspicion was that making our way through the fabrication of these dishes wasn’t going to be as painful as it had been with Chang. And here we’d discover that the mere act of cooking wasn’t to be the most challenging aspect of the endeavor. Of course the recipes were difficult to a reasonable extent; to be a celebrated chef you must do things with sangfroid and panache and legerdemain, you must conceive of and execute more brilliantly than anyone else, because if you don’t, how can you justify having $48 entrees on your menu, or six-month-long waits for tables, and if you’re known for that sort of business, have not only gotten away with such business, but have gotten awarded for it, the expectation is that you must be and will be just as exacting in your eventual cookbook’s directions for the home chef (a book with a $48 list price, no less). No, here, as with Chach and Chang #1, the simple act of procuring the ingredients became a circuitous, frustrating, fraught battle of its own. You’ll recall from our ramen adventure that some of the condiments we needed to purchase didn’t even have English on their labels. Even though I suppose Keller’s cuisine is American, we had, in ways, just as difficult of a time finding some of the groceries a menu as seemingly simple as one with fried chicken and biscuits at its centerpiece requires.

What I learned:

1. They’re not trying to intentionally sabotage you. A pedestrian theory I’ve heard is that cookbooks and magazines and whatever sometimes throw recipes so that you fuck up and keep eating at their restaurants/buying their prepared meals/buying their products/watching their Food Network shows. (I think there’s a degree of truth in this, as evidenced by the discrepancies you’ll find if you’ve ever tried to compare the directions the TV chefs articulate during their program episodes to the corresponding steps on the network’s website, but mostly it’s bullshit.) And as I said above, I think people would be, to a certain extent, disappointed, given the chef’s iconic standing, if things were easy, or seemed easy. I don’t think any of this accounts for the actual problems, though. Mostly the cause for the outcomes going awry is the fact that the home cook often doesn’t know enough going in to anticipate issues before they arise, or before they derail, and know how to work through them quickly. I will discuss this more in point #2. But as for Keller, Chang, Robuchon, Batali, and the rest, I don’t think they’re equivocating because they’re afraid of you toppling their empires. Even if you end up cooking their dishes just as well as they do, it’s not going affect them. These restaurants aren’t going to lose business if people start making their dishes at home. Why? Because not that many people are going to want to bother. Not that many people are going to be equipped to bother, even if they wanted to bother. They’re still going to be famous and celebrated even if people know what goes into their secret blend of herbs and spices. (Isn’t it always true that people most fearful of someone stealing their brilliant ideas are the people who come up with the least brilliant ideas?)

2. You still need to have someone who knows what he or she is doing with you. As I alluded to in #1, if I were to take these recipes alone with the intention of following them exactly, I’d still grapple with contingencies and need to know the solutions, or run the risk of the entire dinner coming apart. An example from the weekend: Of course we knew it would be too, well, ad hoc an ingredient for the plebian and universally useful inventories lining the aisles of Costco, but we couldn’t find kohlrabi in the North Avenue produce store, or at the new mega Whole Foods a few blocks east, or even at Fox and Obel, the most special of the specialty stores, at the outer banks of Streeterville. If I had been shopping alone, I would have been inclined to take the first bad advice that came my away and accept it as fact. At Whole Foods, a produce department stocker suggested we use celery root. It seemed perfectly reasonable an alternative to me, as I had no alternative to use as a comparison. He appeared to know what kohlrabi was, and so I was inclined to trust him, but Alpana knew better. If I’d brought home celery root and we’d used it, what would have become of the recipe as a result? At Whole Foods, they also tried to fob sour cream off on us because they’d run out of crème fraiche, and the guy in charge of ordering was “on vacation.” Having had both toppings enough times before, I knew this couldn’t have been an even exchange. But what if someone more trusting than I (or without as much access to as many alternate stores as I) had been charged with the task? Disaster looms at every turn of the shopping cart. Or what havoc might one wreak on a recipe by assuming that a product called for is “close enough”? The ad hoc brownies required chocolate that was 61% to 64% cocoa. Predictably, we only found 60% on the shelf and had to look elsewhere. This leads me to #3.

3. Just because you have access to a gourmet foods shop doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to find what you need there. We live downtown, in a big city, and have a car, and are monomaniacal, so it wasn’t terribly hard for us to go to three different shops in search of fancy challah or chocolate chips. But what if we’d been trying to ad hoc dinner from somewhere else? And hello, what about seasonality? These recipes, though immortalized in their glossy tomes and, seemingly, perennially ready to make, cannot transcend time and space and geography and season. So far both famous chefs I’ve studied have, in their texts, alluded to the fact that sometimes substitution is necessary. What they don’t mention (and, quite possibly, are unaware of) is that even though people will read and attempt to work from their books all across the country and perhaps the world, that they are cooking from one specific location, using foods available in their specific locations. Thomas Keller’s ad hoc is in Yountville, David Chang’s ham hocks are brined in Manhattan. This ineradicable condition has implications in their work, their aesthetics, consciously, unconsciously. (The same is true of writing. Would I, in Chicago, have the same concerns and interests as my colleague Jill Talbot, spinning her boot spurs in Oklahoma City? Sure we have overlaps, but the view from her window is decidedly quite different from the one from my own.) We can try as best we can to imagine what these chefs were thinking, what was available to them when they were doing the thinking, we can try to replicate their conditions and pantries, but the fact remains that though the books look excellent on everybody’s coffee table, and though can ship a copy anywhere on the planet, some of these recipes simply cannot be made outside of major metropolitan areas—and even that geography only gets one so far. On a Saturday night in November in Chicago in 2009, There. Was. No. Kohlrabi.

4. Even if you can do it, even if it can be done, you may not want to part with the time. Again, Alpana and I will, for the most part, go to great lengths to achieve our kitchen dreams. We’re fanatics. We decided we were going to make ad hoc’s fried chicken, and goddamnit, that’s what we were going to do. But you, a more rational person with diverse interests, may have other exigencies in your life during the evenings and have competing interests and obligations over the course of a weekend. Though you may be intrigued by the idea of what a tomato that roasts for six hours in your own oven tastes like, you may find it inordinately disconcerting that you will need to wake up at three in the morning to silence the beeping that your oven’s automatic shutoff is demanding you acknowledge. And also, as was Alpana’s case in the ad hoc aftermath, you may not be so thrilled at the prospect of returning to work Monday morning feeling like you never really left the office Friday, given that you hadn’t stopped doing something for long enough to read your long-neglected Weekender New York Times subscription or to enjoy an episode of Cooking for Real, currently clogging the arteries of your unwatched DVR queue.

5. Extra equipment is necessary, but consider whether or not you’re ever going to use some of this stuff again (and want to spend the money, even if you foresee many future opportunities to diffuse garlic oil or weigh your kosher salt). Before we even did any grocery shopping, we made a trip to Sur La Table for some of these accessories. Yes, we needed an ice cream attachment for the Kitchen Aid to prepare Keller’s dessert. And yes, we had to have a scale, since Thomas Keller doesn’t cook with Morton’s salt. Post-challenge, I’m happy for the addition of both of these items to our kitchen; I can now measure out a perfect portion of Alpana’s morning cereal without having to use a measuring cup, and we’re already dreaming about the batches of bacon gelato and cookies and cream we’re going to turn out in the future, but I realize amassing gadgetry, regardless of degree of adhoc-ness or extent that the items may offer more diverse applications, isn’t for everybody. Especially if you live in an apartment like our last, where we were so short of space that we had to keep pantry items in the hall closet, which also doubled as my gym clothes drying rack.

6. Even if you can do everything perfectly, it’s still not always worth it. (See again #4 for texture-adding cross-reference.) Despite the lack of kohlrabi (we skipped it and made our vegetables with just radishes and Brussels sprouts), and having to redo a batch of caramel sauce that had gotten too brown, everything came out perfectly. The guests were happy, ate themselves into stupors, and were astounded that we’d served them chicken we fried right in front of them, fried chicken many of them had a hand, literally, in the frying of, and ice cream that had been churned on the premises, hours before they arrived. But Monday morning, we all felt like shit—hosts and guests alike—assaulted by salt, dizzy from drink, vaguely guilty about the time and ingredients squandered in the name of, I don’t know, the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment, the pursuit of culinary hedonism, the thrill, the pursuit, the chase. It just didn’t seem as fulfilling, so unquestionably right, in the aftermath. The knob on the door to the apartment was sheathed in oil. (Should I have handed out wetnaps after the meal?) The kitchen was greasy. Our dining room table, which, during the week, I use as an office, looked like the sidewalk in front of Carmine’s after a Saturday night before its Sunday morning hosing down. Even with a window open, the air in our home was redolent with KFC. And there was all this grease left over. Literally. Bowls of it. It was like our kitchen—though gleaming after Alpana, in a fury of second wind following the guests’ departure and my subsequent passing out, decided to leave no spattered Le Creuset pot left behind—ached. The food was good, the enjoyment high, the learning indelible, Thomas Keller is king, etc., but did we have to do it? Could I not have learned my lessons in a kitchen with less viscous air?

Next week I hope to report on some lesser-intensity lessons. We didn’t get much of a chance to learn anything between the Chang weekend meal and the Keller, thanks to a couple of slow-cooker meals and a night or two of events that kept us out of our kitchen and eating food that came from other chefs’, but I do intend to divide up my classroom time between everyday lessons that don’t come from a book and these entanglements with the words and pictures and obscure ingredients and esoteric equipment of my chef-heroes. I know one of the downsides to these advanced-level undertakings is that I, a novice, get quickly overwhelmed, as evidenced by my tendency to step away from the process and busy myself with non-kitchen things, like dog walking or checking my Google analytics, and getting distracted is certainly counterproductive. I think I was most present during this weekend’s lesson when we were working with the side dishes. I got to practice one of my favorite kitchen tasks: chopping. Slicing the Brussels sprouts, removing the tails from radishes (infuriating the dog, who didn’t understand why he wasn’t getting to eat them as I sliced, to no end), hacking corn off of cobs (a task that brought with it great hand and wrist discomfort), here I was focused, active, and confident about my results. I was distracted during the brine production and didn’t go near the actual chicken frying operation, once it had begun. Though, even as an innocent bystander, I still ended up scented like a Benihana guest.

Check out all the pictures and my step-by-step commentary here.

1 comment:

  1. Charles. This is hilarious. Great writing. I want to keep reading.