Chef had quite a day yesterday. When I start to choose my words, I realize that the language of his kitchen is rubbing off on me. The F-word comes to mind. About a dozen times. To put it bluntly, he fuc@&$’n killed it.
On the way home Chef asked me to take my time writing this post. “Let it marinate,” he said. But what I’ve realized is that in giving myself more time, all I’ve done is over-think it. If there’s one thing Chef wouldn’t want me to do, it’s that.
Yesterday was an epic day. (Again, the language of the kitchen creeps in.) Chef knocked on my door shortly before 9:30 am. We had to pick up Pastry Girl in Santa Monica and make it downtown for the filming of the chef throw-down by 10:30. “I forgot my knives at the restaurant last night,” Chef said as we got in the car. Classic. So we had to make a stop in Silver Lake, too. Thank god it was a Sunday.
We pulled into the lot downtown as the clock ticked 10:34. They were waiting for him.
Pastry Girl and I grabbed brunch while Chef signed non-disclosure agreements and got a walk through the kitchen. We showed up an hour later, right on time for the introductions. When they ran through the introductions a second time, I had flashbacks to the filming of an Absolut Vodka movie I was an extra in back in 2003. What I remembered was the boredom. Back then we got to dress in white and walk around a famous sculpture garden while the film crew flew overhead in a helicopter. It seemed fun and glamorous in comparison to hanging out in a cavernous restaurant.
Then the competition started. The hour flew by so fast, I wished they would’ve gone into overtime. At the risk of violating any non-disclosure agreement I might have signed, I will refrain from saying too much. Besides, you’re gonna want to see it for yourself after it airs, right? I will say that Chef and his competitor had to share a whole animal. They went to town on it, breaking it down on both ends. Hands were flying. Cleavers were clashing. It was insane (another over-used kitchen slang).
The Caterer, Pastry Girl, and another friend of Chef’s named Lou gathered in close at the bar. From there we were able to cheer him on and even sample some of his dishes after he plated them for the judges. Warning: spoiler alert. Chef made a Mexican dish so crazy-complex I thought it was Indonesian. It had flavors like cardamom and cloves, but it was all from the caramelization of the vegetables on the hot grill.
He cooked two other dishes, only one of which I tried and it, too, had an incredible depth of flavor.
Back to work
At 3:30 pm one of the Christinas took Pastry Girl and I to the restaurant while Chef stayed behind to hear the judge’s verdict. When we stopped for coffee en route, I thought it would be a miracle if I made it through the evening without collapsing. I was still exhausted from the night before.
Chef showed up an hour before service and we took a moment to toast his success. For our last night of the pop-up we had two new chefs from Hotel P, G-man and Special Sauce, who we’d seen the day before while prepping. “It’s like a field trip for us,” said G-man. While Special Sauce jumped on apps with me, I wondered what kind of lunatics take a field trip from one kitchen to work all night in another. But it’s that kind of business and Chef inspires that kind of loyalty.
Chef Lou was there, too, taking his day off to expedite for us. Our little four-day kitchen was at its peak. We churned out our usual five-course meal with a few extra dishes thrown in that Chef was able to make with the rest of the animal from the competition. It was pretty bad-ass.
To top it all off, the celebrity chef we’d been expecting sat down toward the end of service. The dining room was all atwitter. It was pretty awesome. (God, do I sound like I’ve spent time in a kitchen or what?)
It’s all in the wrist
A few days ago, during one of our rides back and forth to Silver Lake from Venice, I had asked Chef what he thought about another chef’s cooking. “The flavors are good,” he said, “but his technique is lacking.” I thought about my own cooking. My flavors were almost always good. But my technique is definitely lacking. I said this aloud.
“Anyone can make stuff taste good,” he said.
I disagreed. I don’t think just anyone can make stuff taste good. But what I have learned is that very few people have the ability to do what Chef does – say, to make a seafood dish using a French sauce and a piece of brioche.
“You wanna know what gourmet is?” Chef asked, referring to our ongoing conversation on the topic, “Gourmet is technique.”
I had to agree with him. Many things are implied by technique. Today, while reading the introduction to The French Laundry Cookbook, I felt like Chef’s approach mirrored Thomas Keller’s: small, tightly-flavored dishes; twists on classics; etc. “When I combine flavors, I do so in traditional ways,” writes Keller. He goes on to show how he breaks down the components of a traditional dish and then rebuilds them, “[the dish] still has the integrity of the [original] but with a modern interpretation.” This last part, the modern interpretation, cannot happen without the knowledge of classical technique. When I make beans and rice, it is still just beans and rice. If Chef or Thomas Keller made beans and rice, it would take an altogether different form.
I have made the analogy before about the use of nautical terms as a language that fades when not used regularly. It’s the same with cooking. The more you cook, the more you employ your technique, the the more fluid your use of the vocabulary (the techniques) becomes. As with mastery of a language, you must obey the rules for a long time before you can break them knowingly and bend the words to suit your needs.
Not everyone who cooks can teach
I’ve learned so much this week. At one point last night, AK kindly chided me as I made my third-ever beurre monte.
“You’re like, if I’m gonna get one thing out of this week, I’m gonna know how to make a fucking beurre monte.”
He didn’t know how right he was. I actually awakened with that thought yesterday morning. I knew I could get it right and I did. Chef added a little more butter to thicken it, but I can do it now. In fact, I’m planning to sauté nettles and then puree them into a beurre monte and put it over hash browns and an over-easy egg tomorrow. One little trick and I’ll have gourmet eggs.
This may be the best thing I got out of the week – and I don’t mean how to make a beurre monte. I learned what it takes to be a master chef.
“You know what I love about you?” Chef Red asked Chef two days ago while we were prepping at Hotel P., “You’re a great teacher.” It’s true. Chef is eager to share his knowledge, patient and kind. Sure, he’ll give me shit for stuff, but not for trying.
One of the things that quickly became apparent in the TV competition was how well he played his technique cards. His knowledge of processes, food chemistry and ingredients is encyclopedic It’s what makes him so much fun to be around. Unless you’re a moron, you’re always going to learn something – whether it be how to choose a cut of meat or how to make a beurre monte – and you’re going to have fun doing it.
“I don’t care about having Michelin stars and shit like that,” he told me today,” I just want to make as many people happy as possible.” And that’s exactly what we did this week.