Saturday, June 18, 2011

On Rules and Regulations

From my post on Thursday, you may be thinking that everything that happens in a professional kitchen happens by approximation and assessment, that the check-up on a station and the assembly of a meal ticket is done partly by guessing. But there are times when, much like my occasionally maddening day job, it’s much more about the standardized rules.

Let’s talk about knife holding, for example. Since my finger debacle on Wednesday, I’ve been holding my knife more loosely, with less precision and control than I’m supposed to have, wrapping my index finger around the handle rather than pinching the blade in conjunction with my thumb. But when Annie sees me holding my knife this way, she asks “Are you comfortable holding the blade like that?”

“Comfortable” is a relative term. I’ve been holding a knife mostly incorrectly for the vast majority of my cooking life. I’ve also been gripping spoons and whisks incorrectly and using my flat fingers, rather than rounded fingertips, to hold food in place as I cut. This has, on occasion, resulted in nicked fingers and aching wrists, but the wrong way is what my muscle memory tells me to do. I’m suddenly jerked back to the days of childhood piano lessons, with my teachers telling me to keep my fingertips high, light and arched over the keys. I couldn’t quite understand how this would make me a better piano player, as I’d still keep producing noise no matter how my fingers were shaped.

And it takes me just as long to wrap my head around the rules of the kitchen—chopping knives need to be hand-washed (to keep the blades from dulling in the dishwasher); cutting butter into dough needs to happen quickly but incorporated slowly (so it doesn’t melt, but isn’t so lumpy it’ll create pockets of unwanted air); parchment paper needs to be secured to the sheet pan with cooking spray, but only when it will go in the convection oven (where hot air will be circulating around the pan, threatening to blow the sides of the paper up and onto the baking biscuits). It’s not so much that I’m doing things wrong by default, but rather that I’m doing them illogically—not considering the science and method that’s gone into finding the right way. As I’m sifting flour and sugar into a bowl, I don’t consider the size of the bowl in relation to the size of the sifter, and end up making a huge mess. Yes, I can clean it up later, and I do, but not thinking about the rational method of preparation beforehand costs me time and energy later.

It’s a crowded, busy kitchen tonight, and as Annie’s switched out the vast majority of the dessert menu for new items, there’s little I can do but watch and learn. There are so many little gestures on a plate, it’s hard to keep track of them—the thin dribble of sauce, the fanning of strawberry slices, the placement of borage flowers to fill in gaps. Some of these choices seem ornamental (though when every garnish on the plate is edible, and well-paired to the dish, nothing can be disregarded.) But the plates are undeniably beautiful—as Annie scoops out a quenelle of crème fraiche, I wonder if she’s this precise in her home kitchen. Does she slice her morning bagel with a carefully pinched knife blade? Is cream cheese spread with a perfectly even motion, ending in a tiny flourish? Or does she, like me, spread it thick and hasty, getting it all over her fingers in the process?

Many methods to preparing our desserts, ultimately, are in place precisely because they make things more beautiful, more appetizing to the eye. I’m set to cutting up fruit for a breakfast platter, and as I slice my knife through the white pith of the oranges and grapefruits, I’m frustrated by how much fruit I’m cutting away in the process. Instead of Annie’s long, clean slices of peel, leaving the fruit perfectly rounded but pith-free, I’m hacking off little chunks, leaving the fruit more oblong than cylindrical.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I say as I hack away at the grapefruit. “Keep track of so many rules for so many different things.”

“None of these rules are arbitrary,” Annie says, correcting my sliced strawberries so they all point in the same direction. “The way we’re doing things makes sense, even if it seems like more work.”

I start sawing my knife back and forth down the fruit, and the peels start coming off longer, the fruit becoming more rounded. There is, as it turns out, a method to this madness.

1 comment:

  1. At the height of her powers as a singer, Maria Callas used to continually study and practice her parts, sitting at the piano and repeating passages of roles of which she was already considered a master and exemplar. A friend asked her one day why she did this. She obviously knew how to sing these roles, so why the effort? Callas replied that she studied so hard so that later she could forget it all. Through repetition & practice, the role became a part of both her sense & muscle memory. Only then was she free to forget about technique- about how she should approach the challenge this particular passage or that high note -and create a living, breathing character.

    I think you will find the same to be true of the challenges you are facing now. You have a "voice". You are learning how to allow that voice to "sing", whether on the page or at your station wielding the various tools of the trade. With time, technique and process will become second nature and allow you to experience more directly the creativity for which they are a means to an end.