For many a cook, there is no room for error when preparing almost any meal.
Julia Child, the cook who used television to instruct a few generations how to find both the joys and the vagaries of French cuisine, had a contradictory few. “Never apologize. Never explain. You don’t have to strive for perfection. After all, there is almost nothing you can’t fix.”
The fixes in Ms. Child’s cooking were referred, by her, to be “variations.”
It was Paul Bocuse, or maybe Joël Robuchon, or maybe…oh what the hell, Bozo the Clown, who recognized a kitchen mistake as being more than a variation. It was, perhaps, a “creation.” The word suggests genius. At least it points in the general direction of a Michelin star.
A Michelin star is as elusive as a wolverine and as coveted as the Nobel Prize. And even a single star points not only to the exceptional quality of a chef’s food, but the attention paid to linens, service, and China, crystal and silverware. The wine list should complement the menu and should be managed by a knowledgeable sommelier.
Mistakes at that level of culinary service are neither variations nor creations. They are mistakes that might easily cost a chef a future in the fine-dining spotlight.
Without much evidence to go on (except my own), I’ll suggest that most kitchen catastrophes arise because the chef was not properly prepared for service. It starts with the line, that place in the kitchen that starts off as a prep station before transforming into a production line to assemble the orders.
After learning about it, prep was always my favorite part of the day. The careful chopping and placement of any number of items of what the French call the mise en place. Key to the prep were the chopped onions, celery and carrots that would become the foundation of each dish on the menu. Additionally, the station would provide easy access (no opening of jars) to capers, anchovies, fresh herbs or whatever else might be needed for a specific service.
One day, a sales rep from Sysco wandered into my kitchen and tossed three bags of chopped vegetables on top of my workstation. The guy proudly announced that my days would become easier if I started buying that trio from him.
“And what,” I asked, “would I be doing if not chopping vegetables to start my day.”
He had no answer to my query.
“I’m a chef,” I told him. “This morning task of chopping food is my job.”
The fourteen-day shelf life of the onions, carrots and celery bothered me. Food should rot more quickly than what he was offering.
On the dessert end of the spectrum came a cheesecake that the sales rep from FSA said was so good I could pass it on as my own. That made me mad. “I don’t,” I said, “lie about the foods we offered at the restaurant.” Besides, my mother’s cheesecake has belonged to our family for three generations.
My mother loved to cook, and she was really not very good at it. Rather than perfecting a few menu items, she was constantly on the search for something new. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a meatloaf recipe that had green peppers and Swiss cheese.
“Is anybody else’s meatloaf cold?” I ventured.
“It’s supposed to be,” my mother answered. She had storming off in a huff down pat.
There is no shortage of people willing to tell the chef what’s wrong with the menu or the way their little taste from it could be improved. You wouldn’t go to someone’s house for a barbecue and start complaining that there was no Pommery’s Moutarde au Cognac for your Ball Park Frank. “I don’t know,” you complain,” I just can’t bring myself to using Heinz Yellow Mustard.”
Unlike my mother, my wife hates to cook. Geri’s menu repertoire is short but is actually quite good. It’s limited in scope—and therefore is limiting to my own. She will not eat wild game of any kind. Halibut is the only seafood she will eat, although I’ve recently noticed her ingesting shrimp cocktail. She likes clam chowder and hers is as good as any I’ve had. She likes smoked salmon, provided that somebody smoked it on-board a ship in the Bering Sea. She likes the way our son, Daniel, makes crabcakes.
We have a couple of unforced errors that have created fine memories in the family book of lore.
I had taken ill back in the very late ‘70s. Generally responsible for dinner for three, I couldn’t wrest myself out of bed to cook. I had some frozen sauce, I told Geri, and all she had to do was thaw it, cook some pasta, and combine the two. Voila!
She guessed she had done something wrong as the pasta, which, after more than an hour of boiling, had morphed into a gelatinous glob that suggested an iceberg. Some added black food dye and the berg becomes the blob, chasing Steve McQueen through the streets of a small town. While still ill, Geri announced, in a manner of somebody announcing the arrival of Queen Elizabeth, that she would be making an eggplant souffle.
This resulted in her creating what could only be described as wet cement. One of our dogs growled at it and took a few twirls as he circled what might have been our first course.
An improvised moment of mine came when Geri, six months or so of being pregnant with Courtney, casually mentioned that she would really like some chocolate cake. I dug around and found a boxed version. I was up to adding the milk when I discovered I didn’t have enough. I upped the ante, adding a significant amount of butter and completing the liquid amount with Grand Marnier.
I heard no complaints. Happy cooking!
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
Salmone alla nuotare
3 stalks asparagus
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 6-oz. skinless boneless salmon filets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
12 mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
1 cup white wine
1⁄4 cup fresh or frozen peas
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh chives
1 tsp. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1⁄2 tsp. finely chopped fresh dill
Trim & slice asparagus on the bias. Set aside. Grease a skillet with 1 tbsp. butter. Sprinkle skillet with shallots. Season filets with salt and pepper; arrange in skillet. Scatter mussels around filets; pour in wine with 1⁄2 cups water. Boil, and reduce heat to medium-low; simmer, covered, until mussels open, 2–3 minutes. Remove from heat; set aside, covered, to let steam, until fish is just cooked through, 3–4 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer fish to a baking sheet; transfer mussels with a slotted spoon to sheet, leaving broth in skillet. Keep fish and mussels warm.
Place skillet over high heat; bring broth to a boil. Whisk in remaining butter, 1 tbsp. at a time, until smooth. Add asparagus and peas; cook until tender, 2–3 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in tarragon, chives, parsley, and dill. Season with salt and pepper.