People watching is a favorite pastime of mine. A true Seatellite, I am often found in a coffee shop, getting my daily (OK, twice daily) fix of caffeine (double tall americano, room for cream). The busy hub offers glimpses of people also going about their lives at varying paces, and when I have the time I pause for a moment, take a table, and watch.
One thing I always take notice of is shoes. I have often thought a person reveals a bit about themselves from the shoes on their feet. Clothes change daily, but shoes are a true commitment and often give better insight into true personality.
This said, the same can be estimated of a restaurant by it’s mashed potatoes. Not yet have I worked in a restaurant that didn’t serve mashed potatoes, and each revealed a bit of their soul through their preparation of the side dish, a constant component on ever changing seasonal menus.
My first job in the kitchen was at a growing Seattle restaurant group called the Bluwater Bistro. A upscale American bistro with a menu designed for mass appeal, their roast chicken, stuffed pork chops, and dry aged new york steaks all sat atop garlic mashed potatoes. Garlic cloves boiled with the potatoes presented the flavor subtly, adding mass appeal to the dish, and insight into the restaurants use of American standards to gain a large customer base.
Lampreia, a restaurant known for it’s pure, minimalistic cuisine prepared nightly by the savant chef served their potatoes in just that fashion. Potatoes hand chosen by Scott Carsberg at the market early in the week for their particular starch content, are peeled and boiled in salted water. Passed by hand through a fine mesh drum sieve to achieve the finest texture, the puree is then moistened with whole milk, mounted with butter, and seasoned to perfection. Before going to the table, each portion is individually rewarmed and lightly whipped with additional cream, placed in a miniature dutch oven to retain warmth, and served separate from the plate, to be enjoyed as the diner feels appropriate.
The Fat Duck’s potatoes were a true reflection on Heston Blumenthal’s intellectually grounded cuisine. Treated for service in a Michelin 3 star restaurant, a correctly chosen variety of potato was boiled, passed through the drum sieve, and mixed with an exacted and tested combination of milk, salt, and clarified butter. This recipe, treated for service in a Michelin 3 star restaurant appears as Pomme Puree in the cookbook Blumenthal wrote called Family Food. A reflection on his duality, Blumenthal is driving cuisine into the future yet puts the same attention to the simplest and most traditional of dishes, and places it on the simplest of tables, your home.
At Eva, a restaurant that is built on a solid foundation of locally sourced organics, seasonal ingredients, and close relationships with those that grow and produce the food they use, the potatoes were kept as close to their natural state as possible. Dug recently from local soil, skins sometimes left on, and occasionally studded with Neuske bacon, Chef Amy McCray calls them smashed potatoes, and leaves them earthy, lumpy, and hearty. Offering a flavorful and memorable experience, the meals at Eva are meant to be as comfortably satisfying as their smashed potatoes.
During my first week at the Rainier Club I was given a glimpse at the kitchens soul by learning their preparation of mashed potatoes. Peeled and weighed to the portion, the potatoes are cooked in large batches, held in single layer trays in a steamer. They are then milled through a ricer with the salt and pepper for proper distribution, and mounted with butter. Mixed by the aid of a large stand mixer, the potatoes are moistened with an aromatic cream. The cream, steeped with varying herbs and peppercorns, adds a hint of luxury and a sense of dignity to the potatoes. The recipe is calculated exactly, balancing everything a large kitchen like the Rainier Club needs to take into consideration; controlling cost through exacting portions, speed in preparing large quantities, and a consistently luxurious and high quality product.
I often consider how I would prepare the humble potato for mashing had I a kitchen of my own. I would most likely combine a bit of everything I have learned, first and foremost keeping the earthy quality of the potato intact. I would hand choose the potatoes like Scott and perhaps even serve them in adorable little dishes on the side. I might add clarified butter like Heston, leave the skins on like Amy, and aromatically steep the cream like the Rainier Club. If the mood strikes, I’ll know to boil cloves of garlic with the potatoes for a subtle addition of the flavor, or stud them with bacon, adding all the rendered fat for extra flavor. For my own touch, I would add sour cream. A rich acidic balance, the addition of sour cream, or perhaps thick Bulgarian buttermilk would make these potatoes my own, and offer you a hint at the balance I insist all my cuisine holds.