Archive for the ‘Interesting’ Category

Snowed In

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

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.


Thursday, May 29th, 2008

I know I haven’t had a terrible amount to say lately, save a little on one of the easiest Rhubarb preparations I know, and a blurb about cherries I worked with last year.  I’ve been BUSY!

I have multiple jobs you know.

Veil, I spend 20 hours a week split between two days preparing the desserts.  Then there is Molly Moons, you could have guessed that I could never just make toppings for that lovely girl, and I’d end up churning ice cream a couple days a week.  I just love it there.  It has the feel of hanging out with a friend, mixed with the ease of a high school summer job, and the exciting challenge of working with something completely new.  Ice cream certainly isn’t new to me.  But producing ice cream in large batches is a very different animal, and I am loving it.

So despite my best attempts at writing interesting things for you, I continue to come up empty.  This post is no different, I am instead pointing you to the blog I have been pouring over these past few weeks.

L20 is a blog following the opening of Laurent Gras new restaurant in Chicago.  It’s interesting to me because the chatter amongst chefs I know is that fine dining is dying, particularly in Seattle where the hottest new restaurants aren’t temples to cuisine, rather late night pasta joints, fried fish served under a club, small plates of every kind.  Even in New York, Stupak went on record about his future plans to open a cheap casual Mexican restaurant, and David Chang, it seems, is taking over the world.   But here is a restaurant resurrecting the guiredon, a cart used to heighten the tableside experience.  Where as other chefs are stripping the experience they offer, Laurent Gras is doing everything to add to his, like installing deck ovens to bake bread in house, and hiring a brigade of 25 cooks!

I am not saying there is a better or worse.  I myself spend far more time in casual restaurants, and abhor a mediocre fine dining experience.  It’s just nice to see someone creating what appears to be the real deal, fine dining with every detail thought out and pushed to excellence.

Creating within restrictions

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

When I came back from my long trip, walked into my kitchen prepared to return to work, I saw something that had me a little, well, miffed. The chef had submitted the menu items for a November promotion we are participating, desserts and all. Only he hadn’t asked me for my dessert submissions.

So what I saw on the menu had me a little ruffled. I expected to see two of them there, one an inherited dessert that will never leave my menu, salted peanut butter ice cream, and another of my own creation that has been on the menu for quite a while. But the third dessert, Warm Almond and Carnoli Rice Soup with Ceylon Cinnamon and Orange Blossom, was new. And all I could think was sneer and think, “That’s not my dessert.”

My snit didn’t last long, just until the chef explained he didn’t want to disturb my trip and just put something up there. Our chef, you see, is probably the most considerate person I have met, and it’s hard to be a snoot when he had your best intentions in mind.

As he was talking to me, I remembered how much I love to create with tight restrictions. This was something I loved about school, art classes in highschool, photography in college, and everything in culinary school.

You are given an assignment with boundries, and forced to find yourself within them. I always loved seeing the finished projects lined up next to eachother, seeing how vastly different each one was. Even within the tightest restrictions, everything reflected the individuality of the creator.

So after rereading the dessert that was not mine, I put my ego in check, and began to treat it like an assignment. How would I make an almond and rice soup? How will I incorporate the ceylon cinnamon and orange blossom flavors? And as the wheels started spinning, confined and restricted, I began to love this dessert.

It was something I wouldn’t have come to on my own. My desserts are deep in americana, nostalgic, heartfelt, playful and modern. Shannon’s desserts are classic with much french influence, comforting, ellegant, and simple.

I began testing variations on the almond soup, which in description is much like an almond horchata. In my research I have found a traditional Polish soup taking body from the almonds and rice, and a bit of acid from golden raisins. The addition of fruit makes me ask, can I add body with subtle roasted pears?

Questions still remain, do we toast the almonds or leave them raw? Will the flavor of raw almonds be as distinct warm as they are cold? How thick, viscous, dense do I want this soup to be, and what do I use to achieve that?

We have tested warm rice puddings to garnish the bowl before the warm soup is poured table side, deciding on one flavored with caramelized ceylon cinnamon sticks. Most exciting for me is the venture into the world of poached and steamed meringues. I have only read about them really. The recipes promise a soft, tender meringue much like a delicate marshmallow. Classically presented in a dish called Îles flottantes, or Floating Islands, these pillowy meringues float in a pool of vanilla creme anglaise. Because I am who I am, I spend more time diving into american classics than french, and I may never have pushed myself to make these on my own accord.

Now we are working on including the aroma of cinnamon, either from smoldering cinnamon sticks hidden between the soup bowl and it’s liner, or in an aromatic fog released by dry ice. Either way, a subtle cinnamon should tease your nose as you enjoy the warm soup.

The moral of this story is easy to see. I could have lost out on a chance to grow and expand due to a stubborn ego. It would have been an easy road to take. But it’s a nice reminder to myself that looking around the kitchen, everyone is unique, and each has something to offer that you wouldn’t have seen on your own.

Modern Roots

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

While looking for a new position and spending countless hours talking to various people, I am beginning to feel a bit like a broken record. The same questions are pressed to me at each stop, the same words string from my mouth in answer.

Hearing something for the third time, I realized how ingrained into my philosophy this truth was. I was describing my experiences interning in two very modern kitchens, The Fat Duck and WD-50, and this conclusion.

Modern cuisine is as rooted in classic cuisine as any other kitchen. I feel like the attention grabbing modern methods and techniques are simply the tip of the iceberg. The top peeking out of a massive structure of very grounded classic cooking.

Heston made the point of perception, saying that something modern will look much more so when seen next to something traditional, and vice versa. The tradition of a dish shines when playfully paired with something highly modern.

I used one of my favorite dishes at WD-50 to make my example. The dish was a bowl filled with a crystal clear steaming broth with 3 white orbs bobbing about at the bottom. The orbs contained a warm liquid encapsulated in a thin and tender pectin membrane that burst in the mouth with a little pressure from the tongue to the mouths roof. A wafer thin toast cracker rested on the rim of the bowl holding another capsule and creating a visual aesthetic in the vain of ikea’s minimalistic clean lines.

But the flavors were that of french onion soup, as classic as it comes. The broth, a roasted onion consume was rooted in traditional flavor and made with a classic raft, albeit I seem to remember the protein of the traditional egg white was traded for something from the shelf, meat glue perhaps? The orbs contained intense bursts of roasted Gruyere, and the wafer thin toasts represented the toasted bread that usually sogs above the soup. The modern presentation needed to be set over a deep understanding of the classic dish, just as modern cooking comes from chefs who have a deep understanding of cuisine as a whole.

I often think starting my awareness of this modern movement at The Fat Duck was a stroke of luck. I say this because their use of molecular gastronomy is so subtle that much of it goes unnoticed. Hestons cuisine showed his attachment to the traditions of British food as much as his research into molecular gastronomy.

His dish of bacon and egg ice cream certainly garnered media attention, but it’s placement in a dessert replicating a plate of full English, the traditional British breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans, and tomatoes grounded it and gave the odd flavored ice cream context. The bacon and egg ice cream may have been the media darling of this dish, but it sat aside an outstanding baton of “pain perdu” or french toast. This traditional element to the dish was made from a piece of brioche soaked in a traditional custard and cooked in a series of classic techniques. It was this traditional component, along with a roasted tomato jam, candied bacon bits, and dots of maple syrup that rooted the unusually modern bacon and egg ice cream in place.

It seems to me that modern kitchens are often dismissed as only that. But honestly, they seem just as, if not more grounded in tradition than many kitchens claiming to be traditional. My conclusion and the words that have been stringing again and again from my mouth are that tradition holds modern cuisine in context, therefor its just as important to me to look back as it is to look forward.