Those of you staring into computer screen in the Pacific Northwest are well aware of the snow that has bound us to our homes. Those outside this region, possibly from area’s accustomed to regular snowfall, might scoff at the mere 9 inches that has kept me behind my front door for most of the past week.
You have to understand, we just don’t get much snow here. So when we do, we let the soft blanket slow our lives to a calm pace, tuck ourselves indoors, and enjoy the few days in which we just couldn’t possibly be accountable for the daily fuss that is city life.
Some of us are going stir crazy. I am not one of those people. It’s been nothing short of a lovely vacation here in my little apartment, with nothing to deal with outside my doors. I don’t have to go to the grocery store, I dont’ have to run any errands, I don’t have to bother. Instead I have caught up on those rainy day things that not even a rainy day in Seattle can prompt me to do.
In particular, I have caught up on the stack of cookbooks that I have accumulated over the last 6 months, finding the most inspiration from Elizabeth Faulkner’s Demolition Desserts. It’s an interesting process for me, that of reading cookbooks by other chefs. It’s not just a look at the pretty pictures, or a few post-its flagging recipes I might try if I ever get around to it. I have to find their frame of reference in order to process what they have put forth.
While this is hard to do without tasting anything, without the visual clues given by plating and the restaurant itself, the dialogue written in a book is often more revealing than the actual experience. Every dish in a restaurant is the culmination of personal internalization and interpretation. Thus, a chef takes in inspiration from common sources, sources we are all familiar with; flavor (cherry), texture (cakey), shared cultural food memories (fluffernutter, pumpkin pie) , the work of other chefs (Pierre Herme), color (bright orange), mood (serene), season (winter). These all whirl around in a chefs mind, where they are filtered through their own personal life experiences, knowledge base, persona, and are interpreted, internalized, and eventually spit back out into a dish.
You should immediately recognize the original inspiration. Simply put, if the inspiration for the dessert was meyer lemon, you should darn well recognize meyer lemon. More complex, if the chef is inspired by fall, the dessert should invoke the season. On top of that you can hopefully recognize the personality that has been infused into the dish. In other words, set side by side, a meyer lemon dessert made by my process should be recognizable against one of Faulkner’s making.
We all know this is not always the case. It is a rare tallent that can imbibe their dishes with their true spirit. Hokey, I know. But after flipping through the pages of Demolition Desserts, it is clear that Faulkner has managed to know herself through her desserts. She has been able to present the information to us in a way that lets us in, lets us crawl through her psyche and see the world of sweet things as she does.
This point is not easy to reach as a chef. It is the mark of experience, maturity, mixed with a spark not everyone is lucky enough to have. It’s a rare teenager that knows who they are, just as it is a rare fledgeling chef that has come to this point of self awareness. It comes with time, takes it’s sweet time, demands more time, but comes, provided this crazy industry doesn’t break you first.
How do these demolition desserts taste? I have no idea. I can make assumptions based on the pictures, the way the flavors sound together, the way the recipe appears to put things together. But that’s never really the point with cookbooks for me.
Instead, it’s the chance to climb inside someone elses head for an hour or two. A chance to find their point of reference, and look at the same things I see every day from their view, to see things I have never seen before in things I see every day.
I would be foolish to say I have come close to finding this in myself. It’s budding, I can see that. I can see a few of the same things coming back to menu after menu. I have begun to be able to say things like, “no this is how I do it.” Or, “That’s just not my style.”
I have found a creative process that works for me, and have put it to practice a few times in a row now. I choose simple flavors, clean, stripped down to their core being then magnified, pair them with other flavors I believe they taste good with, and build a structure of texture around these flavor profiles. I take successful dishes rooted in tradition, strip them down to thier essence, their base identity, and use those building blocks to create something new and old at the same time.
I can see traces of those chefs I have been influenced by shining through the fabric of my desserts. I can see thick ribbons of Scott Carsberg’s minimalism, isolating and heightening flavors and letting them speak for themselves. I can Heston’s philosophy hemming my work, framing the bigger picture that is the entire process of the human interpretation of physical stimulus into flavor. I can see Stupak’s deep knowlege of texture and control threading it’s way through what I do, the same thirst for deeper understanding fueled by Chris Young, weaving the fabric tigher every month. Sequins of Shannon Galusha’s playful love of americana scatter, a pattern of Jerry Traunfields deep and lenghty bond with herbs and spices is begining to show through.
I have beliefs about what my desserts are and aren’t. I take in the entire experience the restaurant I work at offers, what it feels like to be in the dining room, what the diner feels like after their meal, what the decor says to them, the neighborhood, the chef’s work, how hard was it to park, wether or not they dress up or down for this experience. I build the desserts to be the culmination of this experience, not just a sweet nothing to say goodbye with, an afterthought.
Thus, the dessert built of the flavor profile inspired by the nostalgic american treat, the creamsicle, vanilla, citrus, creamy, tangy, will be very different when built for a diner who has just spent three hours in a Phillip Stark plastic chair in the near steril, white, closely veiled dining room at Veil, than for a diner that has spent one and a half hours on the woven seat of the danish modern chairs hand crafted by a local cabinet maker in the booming, cavernous, racous dining room at Poppy.
I can see all this showing, I do hope, that above all, a small glimpse of myself is becoming present in the desserts too. Hopefully those of you who have had desserts at all the restaurants I have worked at can recognize a twinkle of Dana coming through someday too. But I am a patient girl, and this is something only time will show.