Thursday, June 16, 2016

Chef and Forager

In the dozen years since [Bill] Smith pioneered his honeysuckle sorbet, based on a centuries-old Sicilian recipe for "jasmine ice" and his own trial and error, he has taught his employees and their spouses how to pick the flowers. He pays them fifteen dollars for eight softly packed cups. This year, though, thanks to spells of cold and wet springtime weather, he's been largely on his own, forced to forage in thin patches that aren't booming with the typical blooms.

- From the Indyweek

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Denatured Dessert

“I happen not to like sweets,” he [Alex Stupak, pastry chef of WD-50] said as we sat down after dinner and he began to explain his work. “It’s an idiosyncrasy of mine. I decided to become a pastry chef because it gave me autonomy. Whether you think your desserts are manipulated or not, they are! When you’re conceptualizing an entrĂ©e, a protein, you generally expect to get a piece of that thing intact. In pastry, it doesn’t occur. Pastry is the closest that a human being can get to creating a new food. A savory chef will look at puff pastry not as a combination of ingredients but as an ingredient in itself. Pastry is infinitely exciting, because it’s less about showing the greatness of nature, and more about transmitting taste and flavor. Desserts are naturally denatured food.” He looked at me sternly. “Birthday cake is the most denatured thing on earth.”

-- Alex Gopnik, From The New Yorker

Dessert circa 2011

It was as if the dessert chefs had given up on dessert, too, and produced something else in its place. At even a moderately upscale establishment, you would invariably get what I had come to think of as the Portman Plaza plate, since it so closely resembled the model that a developer would have proposed for the center of a crime-wracked mid-sized city in the seventies: three upright cylinders—small towers of something wrapped in something—with the tops sliced at an angle; a crumbly landscape of some kind; and a reflecting pool running around the edge. The plate would be advertised as, let’s say, a chocolate-peanut-butter mousse cake with walnut-balsamic crumble and a sesame sorbet with Concord-grape foam. But the effect was always the same: not enough of a cakey cylindrical thing, too much of a crumbly thing, far too much of a gelatinous thing, and an irrelevance of an off-key runny thing. Without surrendering sugar, dessert had surrendered all its familiar forms—the cake, the soufflĂ©, the pudding—as the avant-garde novel had surrendered narrative, character, and moral. Losing our faith in art is, in a secular culture, what losing our faith in God was to a religious one; God only knows what losing our faith in desserts must be.

-- Alex Gopnik, From The New Yorker

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Jewish Desserts

click to enlarge
"Mandel bread is Jewish biscotti in a universe where people are always saying, 'Hey, you know the problem with biscotti? It’s too thick and flavorful.'"  From Lucky Peach

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sonny's, Old City, Philadelphia

Crushing cheesesteaks with EJT; the shop was so packed we ate on top of the car

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Chef Stretches Out

We are seeing a phenomenon now where chefs have become minor celebrities, and with celebrity comes the investor that would like to capitalize on fame by building a fiefdom of profitable restaurants for the chef. Where 20 years ago fame might have meant a cooking show and a set of signature pans (e.g. Wolfgang Puck), now the chef in question can expand from the one heralded restaurant to several, often with different conceptual culinary programs.

In New Orleans, I saw this phenomenon at work recently. At John Besh's August, one can eat a fancy, expensive meal conceived by an expert in Southern Cooking. The problem was that most of the food wasn't very good. It wasn't for lack of trying. All of the frou frou ingredients were listed, along with thoughtful mashups of southern cuisine served on small plates that might have been seen on a lesser episode of Iron Chef. It was just that with the actual Chef Besh not at the helm (and who would expect him to? He now owns eleven dining concepts in New Orleans alone), the execution was poor, the etoufee dish was not hot temperature-wise, the spicing was off, and the dessert was stale.

For the entreprising restauranteur, there is no concept not to be explored or exploited: the high cuisine spot; the food truck; the ramen noodle shop; the mozzarella bar; the dessert and bakery concept; the pizzeria.  Who wants to be the next Batali?  But being Batali would mean not physically being there.  The Chef has left the building.

So when I say the Chef stretches out, what I mean is the Chef stretches him or herself too thin. In any kind of operation, especially one with "artisanal" food processes, you can see this happening. Ideally, you want the creative chef to leave his or her imprint on every dish, and for that dish to be unique in a way that speaks to the diner. But this may not always be possible, even with a relatively accomplished and well paid staff.

The staff, the workers that are doing the cooking for the Chef, are only as good as their training.  The U.S. gastronomy movement, being so new compared to Europe, is experiencing a severe shortage of well-trained cooks.  If the cook's training is rushed and not thorough, the end result will be below the quality of the celebrity chef.  But in the effort to both please the investors and keep the ego fed by expansion, a cruel facsimile of the Chefs' cooking gets into the public mouth. The thoughtful restaurant is not something replicable and franchisable like a McDonald's, yet the average McDonald's is doing far better in the consistency department than a restauranteur stretched thin.

An organization has the tendency to replicate the traits of its leader.  So if the restauranteur is overambitious, so will the restaurant be.  And if ambition and skill is diluted by a score of dining concepts, what remains for the customer to enjoy?