Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lightest Touch, and the Deepest Biases

Texture--the sense of touch, of thickness or thinness, of a substance's weight--is hugely important when it comes to how we experience food. Just as sipping a wine can feel like silk, velvet, or light cotton, a dish's buoyancy, the way it sits on your tongue, can tip you toward loving it or hating it. You can't know a bread's risen without gently prodding it for springiness, that a asparagus should be trimmed without first snapping it at its natural breaking point, or that a steak's done without pressing your finger into the center of the meat. Getting touchy with your food is precisely the point.

I'm starting to wonder, however, if some higher power wants to keep my hands off the food. On a run into Eastsound today, I slipped on a fresh batch of gravel, and ended up skinning my left hand against the road, along with shattering the glass on my iPhone. (Whether the addition of gravel to the Orcas landscape is a rustic touch, or one that heralds future paving, I'm not sure, but I was maybe 20 feet away from an SUV when it happened, so something tells me the change is not so ideal for crowded country roads and narrow pedestrian shoulders.) In the kitchen, this means that both my left and right hands bear enormous bandages, and that I'm constantly slipping in and out of rubber gloves to protect my cuts. Nothing is more uncomfortable than when I have to knead out the butter chunks in a streusel topping for tomorrow morning's muffins. I'm wincing with pain each time I roll the dough between my palms. And it feels like yet another setback--so much of successful cooking depends on your ability to roll the dough between your fingers, to hold the bread steady as you slice off croutons, and to maneuver the greens on your salad place for the best possible presentation. But the work requires I get my hands going again--juicing oranges, dressing pizzas for lunch, and, yes, shaving fennel on the mandoline. (Wally forces me to confront the damn machine again, and finally holding it at the right angle, with my fingers curled way back, produces a pile of clean vegetable shaves, fingertips not included.)

My challenges, however, are no match for Geddes's, who after lunch heads outside with a giant basin of spiky sea urchins.
My first meal at the Inn involved sea urchin--little hunks of buttery golden roe--in a seafood pappardelle, and my initiative to order it was because I'd never eaten it in a non-Japanese preparation before. It's also something I rarely get the chance to prepare myself, and so when Geddes was ready to extract it, I was more than ready to watch the process. He hoses off the needles of the urchin, which are still wiggling fairly vigorously, and its colors, red and deep purple, drain out into the water. He slices a knife in and around the mouth of the creature, and scoops out its digestive organs to expose the gonads, the creamy pockets we'll be serving up over the pasta.
Lots of water with undigested seaweed spills out--I imagine any creature with such a flavorful diet possesses a rich flavor by default. Geddes scoops out five little hunks of yellow seems like a lot of work to go through for so little cooking material, and apparently many restaurants end up using the exoskeleton of the urchin as the platter for the roe, filling it with ice the way we prepare our oyster platters. The spikes stop moving, and for a second I think about suggesting an appetizer prepared kebab-style. This idea doesn't last long, as Geddes moves onto the remaining five urchins still writhing in the bucket.

Lucky for Wally and I, our prep work today consists of whipping up a fresh batch of ice cream--the exact flavor of cheesecake, perfect for topping the rhubarb cobblers (two desserts in one!)--and preparing breakfast platters for the next morning. Our specials are the same as yesterday, which means that Wally will dominate when it comes to the salad station, and I'll set to work answering the dessert tickets. I'm finally getting the hang of preparing out frozen treats: dipping my spoon into a stream of hot water before each scoop, scraping the scoop up against the sides of the container, and pressing the tip of the scoop firmly into the bowl before squeezing and letting go. Instead of the mushy dollops I used to generate, they now come out clean and teardrop-shaped.

But texture comes back into play again: Annie introduced several new dishes to the dessert menu, one of which is "chocolate pâté", a fudgy ganache shaped like a loaf and served with slivers of strawberries, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and a perfectly shaped dollop of creme fraiche. I know from my experiences of slicing the chocolate tart last week that thick desserts like this respond well to hot knives. However I still get the occasional slice that refuses to leave the blade, laying thick and heavy against the steel and impossible to plate. In order to manipulate the aspects of the dish--slicing off two thin pieces of chocolate, scooping the creme fraiche, and cutting strawberries on the diagonal to make a little fan--I need a dexterity and lightness of touch. With gloves on, I'm covered in melting chocolate almost right away, and dishes need to be wiped down for smudges before they can go out.

Will customers even notice? I wonder. The beauty of our plating is so beyond what someone might do in their home kitchen, I think, that to criticize it seems almost beside the point. For me, going to a restaurant means giving myself over to a thought process and attention to detail that I rarely commit to my home-cooked meals--at home, I rarely fan my vegetables out over my quenelle'd rice, or drizzle a sauce slightly over a piece of meat. And I certainly don't think about flowers or garnishes...maybe because they're rarely available, but also because it's so beside the point. In home cooking, even when it's the meditative end to a stressful day, I'm all about the speed of execution, and rarely about the presentation. I eat my rice, veggies, and minimal protein in cereal bowls, and a heavy squirt of Sriracha is my colorful "garnish" for most dishes.

But when I go to a restaurant, I want something that I can't achieve myself. Unless I've heard it's the restaurant's specialty, I almost never order chicken, simple pastas, or classic chocolate desserts. I lean toward the odder ingredients: the side order of farro, the plate of pickled nasturtium flowers, the whole trout for two. (It's the same reason I lung for the chicharonnes every time they appear--when will I next been deep-frying duck skin in my home kitchen?) When I first heard about the sea urchin on the menu two weeks ago, I immediately jumped at it--because when could I really do that for myself? And yet, as I watch the tickets come in, I see very few orders for the urchin special. Is it that the diners simply want other things? Or is it an inherently less adventurous crowd?

Yesterday, as I went back for my second helping of sweet Thai fried rice with vegetables, Angela was bemoaning the absence of good Thai food in her life. "It's my favorite thing to eat, and to make for myself," she says.

"Why not incorporate some Thai stuff on the menu?" I ask, loading up my plate.

"Well, we've tried it before--we did a few dumplings as special appetizers--but the customers didn't really go for it," she says.

"There's not much ethnic food on the Island," Chris says. "I love to cook with Indian spices, but it's too hard to get the ingredients, and too hard to sell, to be cooking like that all the time."

Tonight that idea of community expectations starts to come back to me as I slide up plate after plate of desserts into the window. So much of what we like to eat is about personal preference. I can never have too much pepper or spice in my food, but when I'm preparing croutons for 100 customers, I have to seriously cut back on my pepper distribution, barely dusting each slice of bread before toasting. Similarly, Chris has had to adjust his sense of what works to what the customers want--"I had to see how done they wanted their beans before I could know how long I had to cook them...we were told in culinary school that there's a 'window' of doneness for every food. Steak cooked medium rare is 145°F, not 150, not 140. You can't really deviate far beyond that window." I think about the techniques I've always used to see if a steak is done--i.e. cutting into it and seeing it's not too red for me to eat--and start to see the problem when cooking for other people. You may like your cannellini beans with a little toothiness, your greens slick with oil and pepper, your steaks juicy and just barely less than raw, but on the other side of that kitchen wall, there are customers with preferences that may be vastly different than yours. If I'm making a run at this as a real career, I have to learn to pull back as I drizzle that balsamic or scoop out that citrusy sauce--I have to imagine my hopes and expectations as a customer, what I may be anticipating, and adjust as best I can.

Last night Angela slipped us a few leftover bites of homemade goat cheese and chive gnocchi, and it practically floated, it was so light and airy. I could've eaten an entire hotel pan and still wanted more. But tonight, as I sliced yet another stubborn plate of chocolate pâté, I think of my gnocchi-loving friend, who craves weighty dumplings in thick sauces of cheese and butter, and wondered how she might react to these fluffy morsels. I slice one chunk of the dessert as thin as a cracker, but the second slice as thick as toast. It's the only compromise that makes sense to me--something for all kinds of tastes.

No comments:

Post a Comment