Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Slow Night for Tossing Salads, Filling Sausage, and Assessing Futures

I enter the kitchen Wednesday with slightly more ease than I did my first day. I've completed my first night of fetching things from the walk-in, taking tickets, and following instructions, and the novice feeling has dissipated just enough. I'm excited about the night ahead, and as Wally walks me through the basic prep stuff--gathering herbs from the garden, loading up the prep station with our required ingredients, etc.--a little confident voice in my head is telling me, you're going to rock this house tonight.

And then...the restaurant is dead.

It's a nearly silent night. With only two reservations to start the evening, we have too much time between tickets. Even when I'm plating the special dessert--a baked Alaska-style meringue set atop a lemon poundcake, with stewed strawberries and blueberries, and garnished with borage flowers and a sprig of tarragon--I have more than enough time to get everything out onto the floor. Even shucking oysters has become a less-than-urgent task. We still sprinkle salt on the plated ice to stop it from melting, but it's unnecessary at the rate of these requests. We fill up pans with sweet hazelnuts, which look more like almonds to me, and roast them for future salad use.
It's become a night for side projects--Geddes greeted me when I first came in tonight with a proposition. "How would you feel about some cookie recipes?" It turns out that we're going to experiment with baking with lard--but not just any lard. After raising several of his own Mangalitsa pigs this past year, Geddes has been blessed with several buckets worth of creamy white pig fat--the best and purest lard you can find. Lard is often a substitute for butter in baking, so Geddes wants us to experiment with a few different cookies, and see how they come out. He leaves Wally and me with a request for "crinkle" cookies, peanut butter cookies, and chocolate chip cookies, and points us to the lard bucket.

Lard isn't the most appealing-looking or smelling of ingredients--as it appeared when I first fetched it from the cold room, it looks more like a bucket of pure fat than anything you'd want sandwiched between the layers of your croissant or biscuit. It also carries with it that vegetal smell that comes with corn oil--not sweet enough to seem like it would belong in any kind of dessert pastry. But that's our challenge: to find out what including it does to the batter, and finding ways to adjust it and make it better. I've never been much of a baker--it was only last month that I truly accepted the virtues of the homemade tart crust--but experimenting with a new ingredient has piqued my interest. And I'm endlessly fascinated with all the different ways the Mangalitsa pigs make their presence felt in the Inn's menu. There's pork belly and bacon in several dishes, but even those ingredients keep giving after they're cooked. I watch Wally collect the fat from a baking pan full of crisp bacon, and pass it to one of the entrée chefs, who can use it in lieu of butter to roast up some potatoes or vegetables.

I whip up the "crinkle" cookies--mixing the lard with melted chocolate and cocoa powder, brown sugar, vanilla, eggs, flour, and baking powder--and then roll the finished balls of dough first in powdered, then in granulated sugar. When they bake, the sugar coating on the cookies cracks and crinkles prettily over the top, exposing the chocolaty layer beneath. The peanut butter, meanwhile, is a little trickier. You're often relying on the combination of sweet butter and sweet commercial peanut butter (Jif, Skippy, anything where the ingredients aren't just "nuts" and "oil") to produce that irresistibly moist cookie experience. But all we have to work with is the lard and the natural peanut butter that we've purchased for savory cooking. It’s not ideal, but I figure we can try and doctor them with something if they’re not moist enough…

And tonight is a night where recipe testing is how you fill dead time. As I’m scooping out three test cookies onto a Silpat, and Wally is mixing up the last of the chocolate chip cookie version, I can already see it’s nearing 7:00. We’ve made two, maybe three salads the entire night, and perhaps one dessert. I was warned that the kitchen’s slowest nights were Wednesdays and Thursdays, and I was relishing the opportunity for downtime: there’s so much to learn, so many dishes I haven’t yet prepared, and I want a chance to interact with everyone in the kitchen. As I’m putting away the last of the flour, Chris, one of the entrée course cooks, rounds the corner. He’s got the warm, well-fed appearance that I associate with all good senior chefs from my time in waitressing—never trust a super-skinny chef. And he’s got a big prep bucket of carrots in his arms. “So, Jess,” he says, “do you know how to tournade vegetables?”

I scan through my flimsy dictionary of kitchen terminology. Tournade is to tournée, to whittle vegetables into well-angled, football-shaped chunks, ideal for roasting and more organic (and thus more pleasing) to the eye than straight cuts. I’d gone through this while under Geddes’s tutelage in New York—and from what I remember, I spent more time swearing at my unnecessarily deep cuts into the vegetable than actually trimming the things properly. But I’m willing to give it another go—I spend the next half hour tournee’ing vegetables with Chris. He’s spent his fair share of time in professional kitchens, and trained by way of classical French techniques, but we swap real grievances over his time as a chef at the Olive Garden. Apparently it’s nothing but opening pre-sealed, pre-portioned envelopes and throwing dishes together in highly regimented, vacuum-packed fashion. I tell him the story of my friend who waited tables at the Olive Garden in Times Square: in a city full of authentically great Italian restaurants, my friend found that he could never tell his customers where they really should be going for their “Italian” dinners. But Chris has spent his time on the line, and he gets the problems that lead to the pre-portioned solutions. Maybe this is the future of where cooking is headed—that procedure, rather than creativity, will be the best way to guarantee satisfied customers.

A few more tickets come in—I get to throw a blowtorch on my first solo slice of chocolate cashew tart—but for the most part things are too slow to worth worrying about. Wally and I are having fun at the cold station, and though we’ve only shucked about two dozen oysters tonight, I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of it. Yet once we’ve baked our sample batches of the lard-based cookies, I’m a little disappointed. The crinkle cookies are OK, though not as moist as we’d hoped, but the peanut butter are undeniably dry. Once I get home, I look for solutions—should we add cream? More lard? More eggs?—and plan to suggest some bananas to the mix. Peanut butter and banana isn’t much of an ingenious solution, however, and even as we’re coasting through the evening service, I’m lusting after something more challenging.

I round a corner and find Geddes, home from his daughter’s theater performance, snaking ground meat into some sausage casings.  “Can I help?” I ask. “Sure,” he says, “come take the other end of this thing.” He’s filled his vintage-looking sausage machine with his special blend of Mangalitsa meat and spices, and attached to the other end is a pouch that looks, to my immediately flushing face, like an endless condom. “Sausage casing,” he says, “Pig intestine.” My job is to hold the filled casing straight as Geddes turns a crank and the meat pumps forward into the casing.
 I need to hold the newly filled casings straight so that we produce a smooth, lump-free sausage and minimize air bubbles along the links. It’s hard to keep up as he turns the crank—the sausages seem to shoot forth like toothpaste out of a tube—but we end up with a sheet pan of beautiful rounds. Geddes is planning to tie off these links into individual salamis and let them sit in the storeroom overnight. They’ll sit without refrigeration, which is necessary to jumpstart the culture that will cause the fermentation of the meat and the eventual drying process, and then will be hung up to complete their drying. Geddes shows me the non-functioning refrigerator that he uses as a meat locker—from his pigs he’s curing prosciutto, coppa, and several other cuts of meat that will be available for the restaurants use. It’s a long, arduous process, but he’s made every little bit of these animals last, and I’m in awe of it.

I’m even more impressed because the future of his business remains so uncertain. “This summer has been scary slow,” he says. “Is it any better than last year?” I ask. (I imagine the recession hasn’t been kind to the Orcas vacationer’s budget.)  “Well, last year wasn’t great, but this year isn’t good, either. It’s enough to keep me worrying,” he says. For the first time since I’ve seen him, he really is looking troubled. We can see it in the meal tickets—less people are ordering appetizers and desserts, more are airing toward the cheaper entrees, and all are definitely more aware of the cost of eating well. A regular patron complained that we were charging $5 for a side plate of seasonal vegetables. Chris finds this frustrating and hilarious. “I want to tell her, ‘Go out and look at the gas prices, lady! Almost $5 a gallon—that’s why your food’s so expensive! Tractor diesel isn’t cheap!’” he exclaims, as he flips a few burgers for the bar menu. And because of the unusually long cold and rainy season this and last year, those signature summer vegetables—corn, tomatoes, fresh basil—aren’t ready to be harvested and incorporated into menus. The tomato plants are still hanging out in the greenhouse, their stalks tied upward with string to encourage their growth, and sheltered from the unpredictable overnight frosts.
But Geddes says, as he ties off the long ropes of sausage into individual links, twisting each to tighten and seal the casing, he won't harvest any vegetables until they're really ready to go out. He’s committed to the quality of the ingredients, and not putting them out until they’re at their peak. His whole rationale for breeding the Mangalitsas, and now cross-breeding one of them with a boar on Lopez Island, is to explore “the genetics” behind what makes his food taste good. “Some of what we grow—like the sorrel we used tonight—is just plain good,” he says, “but then with stuff like our seafood, I find that where you get it really makes the difference, no matter how you cook it.” Angela, the other chef sharing entrée duties with Chris, completely backs this up. “The dishes here have a lot of elements to them, but we’re not really doing anything crazy to the food. It’s very simple preparation with very good ingredients.”
Her station proves how true this is: two tubs of compound butters (butters mixed with herbs or spices, then saved to be added just as a dish is nearly finished); containers of fresh fava beans and tarragon (and a few springs of those gorgeous chive blossoms); pour bottles of olive oil, white and red wine, and vinegars; and generous tubs of freshly ground pepper and sea salt. The elements of flavor, nothing that requires special chemical treatment or super-fancy equipment.

Ultimately, that’s what the Inn is providing—unpretentious, but highly sophisticated dishes made with superb ingredients. It costs a premium to buy it, and a premium to run a restaurant like this, but it’s one of the few places on the Islands that you can find such a meal. Over family meal, which is a bounty tonight—salmon necks, fresh ravioli with favas and asparagus, and salad—Geddes says that a woman tonight complained that there wasn’t enough seafood on the menu. “If you look at the menu tonight—a slow night—we’ve got at least four dishes with seafood in them available. No other restaurant on the Island can match that. But that’s not really what she wants.”

“She wants a fish and chips shack.” I said.

He smiled and grimaced. “And we could do fish and chips—but the locals wouldn’t support a business like that. There just isn’t the population to make it work.” It's true--the regulars coming to the Inn aren't looking for fish and chips. They want what it's known for--elegant, delicious food. When Geddes does seafood, as in tonight's special salad--slices of fresh salmon tossed with slivered vegetables and a bit of Mangalitsa bacon--it's a far cry from your local fried fish place.
“When you were growing up,” I tentatively ask, “Did you imagine yourself cooking stuff like this? Did you ever just want to…I dunno, open a family-style restaurant, like a diner or a breakfast place?”

Geddes shakes his head. “No. I wouldn’t have been happy with a diner. Growing up, my father cooked for us, and it was simple stuff, but then later I realized that he was braising, he was slow-cooking things. And he’s a professor, not a professional cook. I started cooking pretty late, but I’ve always wanted to cook something special.”

I think about those first complicated dishes I made. The first batch of homemade tomato sauce, made in a boyfriend’s kitchen, where he showed me how to slip off the skins after a few gentle scores. The Pad Thai made in a dorm kitchen, where guys nearby would flock to the smell of seared bean sprouts and hot chiles. The duck breast with the perfectly crispy skin, resting on a bed of pear and sweet potato hash. The first pot of boeuf bourguignon. These were all my signifiers of a budding talent, a passion that felt indulgent and ambitious all at once—something I could build a life on. But listening to Geddes talk, I realize almost all these dishes have been made to satisfy myself, or one or two of my closest friends. I’ve never had to cook for an audience I didn’t know, and never had to risk my livelihood on finding ways to satisfy them.

I return home wondering about how you find that balance in a kitchen’s lifetime, between what you want to cook, and what people want to eat. Angela says to me, “I hear that New York diners are very demanding,” and I agree with her. They can be very entitled, in part because, with so much food conversation in our daily lives, it’s easy to believe that you know everything about what’s going on in the kitchen. But when you start to dig into the motivations behind the making of the food, it’s a much more complicated portrait.

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