Friday, July 1, 2011

It's the Ingredients, Stupid

Looking over my earlier posts over the past month, I see that my writing style has become less and less descriptive. I've done less "filling-in" of detail vis-a-vis what's going on in the kitchen, less elaboration on looks and asides and moments of panic. That's partly because there've been less of them--less moments that feel like emotional crossroads. I've adapted to the rhythm of the kitchen, and each morning as I get dressed, it starts to feel more like a job than an adventure. This, of course, in the context of it being one of the more adventurous things I've done in a long time.

But my slightly sparer prose is also a product of how I've come to see the people and processes in the Wally rolls out the doughs for today's pizza lunch, I gather up ingredients, including the leftovers of this morning's fruit plate. I've always liked the flavor combination of strawberries and goat cheese, and see including it on a pizza as a way to show off my sense of flavor pairings. (Drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar, strawberries as a savory ingredient can't be beat.) But when Geddes sees me with the strawberries, he wrinkles his nose.

"You don't want to go doing that," he said.

"Why not?" I ask. "I mean, of course I'll go with what you think works, but..."

"Well, these strawberries are just so juicy and ripe," he says, picking one up and squeezing it between his fingers, juice dribbling out and down his thumb. "You don't need to do much else to them to make them taste good. Better off to just stick with regular pizzas."

For a moment I'm miffed--these pizza lunches have been one of my favorite ways of seeing what flavors work well together. Blue cheese, beets, and roasted onions = good. Chicken livers and cornichons = not so good. But the way he says that we shouldn't do much "to them" gives me pause. These strawberries came from Orcas Farm, where they were so drenched with sunlight that they were warm even as you ate them. They're rich, sweet, and as juicy as you could ever imagine--they don't need to be messed with to yield a better flavor.

Some cooking processes are all about doing things "with" ingredients--making sauces, salads, layers of complex flavor. The nectarine napoleon on our menu is all about this--a layer of puff pastry, a layer of sliced nectarines poached in vanilla and white wine, a scoop of honey-vanilla frozen yogurt, another layer of pastry, and a layer of fresh nectarines, sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar and bruleed with the blowtorch until just sizzling and aromatic. This creates a laying of flavor and texture experiences--the ingredients work with each other to produce the final effect. But what we do "to" the ingredients is fairly minimal--the pastry is basic, the yogurt is straightforward (sweet but tart, with conventional flavors), the fruit raw on one side to show its natural sweetness, and poached on the other to provide a contrast in texture. The cinnamon-sugar complementary, the brulee for a final touch of warmth. We haven't made foams or vapors with anything, and the cooking we've done is mostly for ease of plating and presentation.

When you're working with ingredients you respect and want to show off, messing with them is the last thing you want to do. As we're sliding the pizzas (all savory, none fruity) into the oven, one of our suppliers stops by with several pounds of spot prawns. These are big pink shrimp, with veiny antennaed heads and plump bodies. Geddes comes out and immediately pulls the head off of one of them to suck out its juices. "Oh they're so good, and they're even better raw. Try it," he says, handing one to me. I hesitate, and he laughs, "I'm not pulling a fast one on you, just try it." I break a prawn open at the neck and suck hard. It's unusually sweet and juicy, more like a peach than a piece of seafood, and almost buttery on the tongue. I wonder if he'll want to add these to the bouillebaisse, one of our most popular dishes, but instead he asks Wally to scrap our plans for a crab salad and use these instead. "What do you think, Jess, serve them whole or as tails?"

I'm on the spot, and pressed for a second. Which seems more appropriate for an Inn dish, something I'd have on a date in a fine restaurant, or something I'd devour with relish at a seaside shrimp shack? "I love them whole, but diners won't necessarily want to get their hands into a salad plate," I say. "Maybe a few peeled tails, and then one whole one?" It works...the plates of shaved vegetables, dressed with a light citrus mignonette, pair perfectly with the chilled shrimp tails, and the whole prawn resting its head on the top of the salad is all the visual flourish you could ever need.

I've cut back on the ornamental writing because these are my ingredients--the juicy exchange of conversation, the hilarious debates over flavor pairings and cooking techniques. I don't have to elaborate on Luke's explanation of why he may not need a haircut--"my sister just got a new job, and I think my hair was responsible"--to give him flavor, nor could I capture Chris's quick-draw response as I'm singing along with The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out." "No," he says. "No, we can't. I'm sorry, it's just not going to work," then smirking and returning to the walk-in. I don't understand the impulse of some nonfiction writers to embellish with untruths, because just being present gives me more material than I could ever need. Even on slow nights like this, where a 7-person reservation is made, then cancelled within a 15-minute period, I don't need to invent things to keep me satisfied--I can just wander over and watch Chris plate a burger with homemade aioli, or watch Angela dress a piece of black cod with a nectarine puree.

There's a reason people choose to eat oysters raw--why mess with something when you already know it's good?

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