In my previous life, the one I lived before I became an adult, I played softball. “Played” isn’t really the right word, though. I lived softball. Fast pitch softball, not the slow underhanded game old men play. I was on a very competitive regional team. I spend every day at 2 practices, at the least. I tournament every weekend. I went home at night and watched training videos on throwing technique, or batting stances, or how to increase sprinting speed within the first 5 steps. I went to every “clinic” within reasonable parental driving distance. Then I grew up, and went to cooking school.
While I make every attempt to subdue the sports analogies in the kitchen, it’s very hard for me to divorce myself from the similarities.
At the moment, a batters box philosophy has been replaying in my head as I collect my thoughts on serving desserts to a diner. This concept is follow through.
Baseball is the great American pastime, so I can make a safe bet that you know the drill. A person with a bat stands in a little box next to home plate, preparing themselves, completing their tiny ritual, and waiting for a ball to be thrown towards them. This is the most exciting part of the game, really, especially for the spectator. The point of contact. When the ball reaches home plate, the bat strikes it, and the game springs into motion. And that point of contact is what the whole game is built around.
However, the fraction of a second that the bat strikes the ball is such a small part of what makes successful contact. You are taught very early on as a batter, that if you only think about the bat hitting the ball, you will fail. You think very little about the point of contact. Rather you train yourself to think of the followthrough. That is, for you, the bat swings from your back shoulder, past your front shoulder. That is your main consideration, using a complete motion that strikes through the point of contact, landing the bat firmly on your back, your body twisted forward.
If done correctly, the point of contact is inevitable. But it’s the entire process that achieves it, not the idea of hitting the ball with the bat.
In desserts, I think about this a lot. The point of contact is that of the dessert being set on the table in front of the diner. And if we stop our thought process there, I believe we fail.
Because once the dessert is on the table, just like the ball being struck with the bat, the infinate variables begin. Where the ball goes, who fields it, the errors and brilliance that the other players inflect, this is where the game gets exciting.
But rather than players reacting a ball, we have people reacting to a dessert. When the dessert is set on the table before them, the diner is beginning a very complex process of flavor perception.
To make this long and perhaps cumbersome analogy complete, we have to understand that flavor is a mental construct that does not exist outside the brain. This mental construct is built with the information we recieve from our 5 senses while dining, first sight, then smell, taste, touch and sound. Once the information is provided from our 5 senses, it mingles with mood, memories, and anything else floating around in the diners head.
And what’s in your head, those are the exciting variables. Those are the things I have no control over. Once my dessert, which I have used my hands to physically create perfectly, consistently, day after day, is set on the table, I have absolutely no more control over what happens. I am out there running the bases, and the diner has the ball. Your mood is in the outfield, your memories are fielding 3rd base, and I have just hit the ball somewhere out there. A very good batter has some control over where the ball goes, but still, no control over what happens to the ball once it’s on the field.
So, if I, the pastry chef, only ever think the process through to the point of contact, the moment at which the dessert hits the table, or worse, the point at which the dessert leaves my kitchen, I fail. It’s up to me to understand where the dessert is going, how perception is created, and what, if anything, I can do to encourage that perception to be pleasant.
Lets just forget about the physical dessert itself, the ingredients I have manipulated and put on a plate. The dessert has been built for maximum success, texture spot on, flavors matched perfectly, plated beautifully. Now it’s on the table, the point of contact has been made.
Lets consider follow through, and consider the perception that is beginning, and what’s already floating around in the diners head.
First and foremost is the mood they are in, which is very effected by the service, and the atmosphere of the dining room. This, a restaurant has the power to influence. But what if they have suffered loss within the past week, a pet being sick, a broken relationship, a fight with a sibling, trouble at work. This portion of their mood I have absolutely no control over, yet it still mingles with perception.
And what of the memories of food already implanted in the diner. How can I tap into these, making a dessert they’ve never seen before feel familiar? I can make safe guesses working within the framework of american nostalgia. I grew up eating American food, and so did you, so I bet we share some of the same memories. But what of the diner that grew up in Germany?
The follow through, the consideration of the perception of my desserts is the most fascinating part to me. Maybe because it’s the truly challenging part, the part I could spend a lifetime attempting to effect, yet would be different every day, every year, every city, every restaurant, and especially every person.
I can take the same amount of flour, sugar, butter, chocolate, and eggs, and make the same brownie every day, for 50 years. But it becomes something unique, and individual every time I put it in a different pair of hands, and that to me is amazing.
I once read that in cuisine texture is the final frontier. But for me, the final frontier is perception. The frontier of texture is that of the American west, wild for quite some time, but eventually just part of our country. For me, it seems the frontier of perception is that of outer space. Infinite and ever changing, and there whether you look up to see it or not.