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).

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