Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Kick in the Pants: The Chevaline Dinner

It's barely eleven a.m. on a chilly morning in December 2010. I've taken off work for the day, have dragged myself out to the Brooklyn Kitchen sans coffee, wrapped myself in my apron, and have onion peels wedged under my fingernails.
I've peeled about two pounds worth, and have a bushel of parsnips to attack in the meantime. But where I really want to be is with the sous-vide machine, currently holding a giant heart of chevaline. And for those of you who don't mask what you eat behind fancy French words, yes, we are talking about horsemeat.
The Gastronauts have always had a reputation for serving up the strangest of the world's animal parts, in all the forms they can be served--I've eaten fish jowls, tripe, kokorec (lamb intestines stuffed with sweetbreads), alligator sausage, periwinkles, and curried goat brain. It's all been delicious, but this horsemeat was a new challenge all together. Not only did I have to stomach it, but I also had to help prepare it.
Dinner's several hours away, but our head chef for the day, Geddes, is already starting to sear up the horse into submission. He's only arrived a few hours before from Washington, and he looks nothing like the hot-shot chefs of Manhattan--but what he lacks in self-aggrandizement, he makes up for in genuine curiosity and enthusiasm.
Geddes doesn't always cook like this; at the Inn at Ship Bay, he's used to more traditional, though equally exciting, ingredients--fresh fish caught in the waters off Orcas Island, proscuitto made from Mangalitsa pigs he raised himself, wild herbs and vegetables grown in his backyard. But he's come into New York, from one island to another, to show us how horse can taste exactly like the finest meat you've ever eaten.
I'm watching Geddes for instruction as he moves from pan to bowl to pot throughout the kitchen. He's got a certainty and economy in his movements that can only come from years in the kitchen. A pan holding searing piece of horse liver gets a quick jiggle over the hot stove. Geddes takes a look at my pile of parsnips, slicing off one end to look at its core. "Oh," he says, without inflection but with the smallest expression of disappointment. "We can't roast these--they've started to go to seed." He shows me the wide dry rings at the center of the vegetable.

"So does this mean we have to toss them?"

"No, but we'll have to find something else to do with them." His bright blue eyes look over the kitchen, scanning the equipment, reconsidering the menu. "Where are the vegetable peelers, d'you think?"

Knives get put away, peelers come out. Geddes has me peel the parsnips into long thin strips. He brings a deep pot of frying oil to a high heat, then plunges the parsnip ribbons into the pot. They sizzle, crisp up, and come out as sweet and crunchy as fried wontons.

These will be nibbled in the kitchen, but eventually heaped over giant platters of horse brisket, tossed with the roasted cipollini onions and roasted root vegetables, and dolloped with homemade tonka hollandaise. I was put on garnish duty, piling them on top like mountains of onion rings.

Ian, Geddes's brother and sous chef for the day, puts me to work as the diners come in. There is a giant bowl of horse tartare, ready to be scooped and rolled into quenelles and slathered on toast. Ian shows me how to scoop the two spoons together, demonstrating until I reach a smooth rhythm of my own. Ian watches me get my stride, and helps to keep my size standard. He's got a winking disposition that makes me worry he's laughing at this city girl who thinks she's a cook.
I'd like to linger in the quenelle process, but suddenly there are hoards of people pouring into the seats, waiting for us to deliver the food to them.
There is cheval carpaccio, sliced thin and served with a sliver of pecorino. It's been chilling for too long, so I need to unroll each piece in the back kitchen until it lies beautiful and flat against the plate.
A butter-lettuce salad with coeur de cheval, with black truffles shaved gently over the top.
A few tables raise their hands and say that they didn't get any truffles. We oblige them with a few extra shavings. Greedy buggers, I think, but Geddes doesn't seem to mind.
Meanwhile Ani, the pastry chef at the Inn, is watching us clear out dinner plates so she can start laying out the workings for her dessert course. I've helped her cut out rounds of semifreddo made from tonka bean, a very potent amaretto-tasting bean that (when consumed in very large amounts) can result in liver failure. But in the dessert course, the bean is used just like a vanilla bean, so Ani feels pretty confident that none of us will be dropping dead tonight.
Ani and Geddes trade quips behind the counter. They've been working together a long time--ever since Ani finished up culinary school--and I'm in awe of how confident she is with these incredibly talented chefs. I'm still nervously cowering in the corner, clearing dishes, standing back. Not sure if I'm being helpful to these guys or if I'm just in the way. But nevertheless, the food continues to go out. They lap up the brisket and vegetables, and soon dig into the chevaline rump, roasted and served with chanterelle mushrooms, sweet onions, braised escarole, and tonka hollandaise.
The wine keeps flowing, and the crowd keeps begging me for whatever's left for them to gorge on. This is far and away the best meal some of them have ever had, and they're ecstatic as each new course comes out. And of course, Ani's semifreddo is the perfect finishing touch.
 What really ends up blowing my mind is the precision and certainty that my fellow chefs carried with them throughout this meal. Ian knew that the roasted vegetables weren't quite ready to come out; Geddes knew just how much sauce to include when serving the brisket; and even when Ani's semifreddo weren't perfectly firm, she took advantage of it to help wedge her roles of pastry into place. I'm hoping to pick up some of this certainty, to know that, Yes, this dish is ready, before I get it ready for the serving. Or at the very least, to look at a parsnip gone to seed and not see it as a total loss, but instead as possessing all kinds of new pleasures...

(photographs courtesy of the NY Gastronauts).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Impending Journeys, and Self-Promoting

Two weeks to go, and I'm suddenly freaking out at the commitment I've made. I'm flying out of New York on June 3rd and making my way to the West Coast to start this project as soon as the kitchen can take me. Unfortunately it's a 3-hour drive from the Seattle airport to the ferry docks, and when you get in on a Friday night, I wouldn't find my way to the Inn until well-before dawn on Saturday. So instead, I'm scrounging around to find a place to stay in Seattle that night...
Insert lovely stock image here. Memories from childhood vacations aren't nearly as well-lit.
I haven't been to the city since I was twelve, but I've been surrounded by enough hipsters and literary folks to know that it's a destination. Right now Seattle seems like a marvelous Pacific wonderland, where everyone carries around hardback novels in their repurposed-leather messenger bags, nibbles on organic locally-grown apples, and rides their vintage Schwinns to their holistic, expressive, imaginative workplaces. Of course, I'm pretty sure that's how some people think of Brooklyn.

But there's something aspirational about Seattle--and the West Coast--that is calling to me. I look out the window and see a city in which there are limitless amounts of ambition and enterprise. There's also constant competition, one-upmanship, and millions of people who are willing to run the rat race. They can schmooze at cocktail parties, pass out their business cards like sticks of chewing gum, and generally self-promote in a way that makes their career skills look like turquoise bracelets in a flash sale on the Home Shopping Network. I don't begrudge them their great networking skills--I admire it. I wish I had more of it. I have been known to turn up the chutzpah from time to time, but generally you know I'm insecure when I'm bragging, because otherwise, I'd be really hesitant to do it. When I wrapped Josh Kilmer-Purcell's wonderful book The Bucolic Plague last week, one quote in particular really stood out to me: the boys both find themselves out of jobs, and stuck with a gorgeous but basically unknown farm. After all their hard work in just bringing the farm up to speed, they suddenly have to deal with the reality that they have a second project to take on--telling people about the damn thing:

"If we're going to save the Beekman, we're going to have to sell harder and smarter than ever before. it's obvious that the last thing this 206-year-old farm needed to survive was another farmer--and especially not two gay New York City ones. Maybe what it did need was a good PR agent, a decent ad campaign, and more blinding sparkle than a drag queen under a disco ball."
You can just hear the pained sparkle in that quote. After getting dirt under your fingernails, it's hard to see things like press releases and promotional emails as relevant or even desirable. It doesn't have the ooomph that comes with making something through genuinely hard work.

If the quality you prize most in yourself is sincerity, it's really hard to muster up the energy to sell yourself with enthusiasm. But I never have any trouble pushing my food. Having people over for dinner is the most natural and impulsive thing I can do.

"Have another piece of pie!"

"Come over, I just made biscuits."

"We have all these tomatoes and no one to eat them..."

I have no trouble loading up a spoonful of stew and leaning to a unsuspecting friend, saying "Taste this, see if it's terrible." I know they'll tell me right away if it's good, it's bad, or if they think it needs just a little something more. I believe in the sincerity of making and eating food--it's maybe the most natural thing we know how to do. And it's the one kind of pushing I'm completely comfortable with at any time of the day.

Printing out the schedules for the flights, for the ferry, and a list of cheap hotels in the area, I'm starting to think that the appeal of Seattle isn't so much that it's new. It's more that it's not New York. Who I know, who I work for, what blue chips I may or may not have, doesn't matter as much when I'm faced with a cutting board, a pile of ingredients, and a hungry diner. Can you cook? is the only question that ends up mattering when the onions are all peeled and the check is paid...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Introduction: The Power of the Prep

Thursday's work day came and went without much consequence. There were emails to send and papers to file, sure, but nothing felt particularly demanding or immediately important--in short, a perfectly ordinary day. This is fairly standard for me: I need a ticking clock, a major deadline, to feel like what I'm doing matters.

But when I got home, there were fresh garbanzo beans to shell...
There were tasks to be taken on--dough to squeeze into a ball, garlic to dice, strawberries to husk, and rhubarb to peel...

I used my fingernails to pull long strips of rhubarb skin off the stalks, making long silky ribbons of red skin and turning my fingertips bright pink.

The work felt real, the efforts I was putting into it felt real, and the rewards felt real.
This summer, I'm undertaking an experiment that will hopefully be an exercise in something valuable: cooking, every day, in a real restaurant kitchen, and channeling my everyday joy of cooking into a semblance of a real vocation.

The challenge: one month, cooking, every day, in the kitchen of The Inn at Ship Bay, under the supervision and guidance of chef Geddes Martin. Whatever work he gives me...chopping veggies, churning butter, butchering pigs.
The challenger: A fledgling cookbook editor, a foodie for life, a former fat girl, who's dumb enough to pool all her vacation days for a DIY cooking school experience. And there's no better way to learn than to get in the kitchen.

Project begins in one month. Time to get to work. Chop, chop.