Sunday, August 31, 2008

Summer's NOT OVER

First off....thank you to everyone who commented on my last post. I guess someone's reading this stuff......

It's Labor Day weekend....the kids are going back to football has officially kicked off...and the sun is throwing shadows like we haven't seen since last year at this time. All of these happenings conspire to trick our minds into thinking that it's fall. It's not. Sure, when you're growing up, the first day of school signals the end of summer. Vacations are over, you've gone shopping for your Garanimals, a new pair of sneakers, and a backpack and that's it for summer.(Don't forget the No.2 pencils) Well, summer hasn't given up in the food world. We are still brimming with corn and tomatoes, the herb gardens are overflowing and many crops are just coming back in after their second planting of the year. Don't line up the weekend apple picking trip yet, folks. Get your bum to the farmer's stand and take advantage of these summer treats. I guarantee you'll be wishing you had a plate of simply sliced tomatoes with some sea salt in September when you're biting into that stale, pithy, white tomato on your Subway sandwich in January. Ummm, the thought of stale, white and pithy makes me SO hungry.

Friday, August 15, 2008

She's not a chef....

Disclaimer: I've been advised not to write this post. The cool thing about advice is that you can either take it or leave it. I'm choosing to leave it today.

Forbes Magazine has recently released a list of the top earning celebrity chefs. Allegedly topping this list was Rachel Ray. I say allegedly because she's NOT A CHEF. Call her anything you want.....successful? I can't question that one. She's very successful and earns a ton of money. Lifestyle coach? Sure. She can teach you how to whip up some pre-packaged food into a meal with interesting catch phrases like EVOO, and YUM-O. Media Maven? You got it. I have no argument with any of those and I think she has worked very hard to achieve a level of success that not many folks can reach. So on that end; congrats. However, to totally rip off Lloyd Bentsen from the 1988 Vice-Presidential Debates 'Ms. Ray, I worked with chefs: I knew chefs; chefs are friends of mine. Ms. Ray, you're no chef.'

I bring this up partly because it chaps my ass that she's being described as a chef. However, the issue is a much larger one. It seems everyone wants to be described as a chef these days. Regardless of experience or talent, kids who haven't even graduated from culinary school or touched the hot line for that matter are asking for jobs 'with managerial responsibility' or changing recipes because their way is 'better'. I told you that so I could tell you this: Being a chef is about the grind. It's about the day to day. Putting your head down and doing it Can you peel a carrot better today than you did yesterday? Does the smell of browning bones still excite you? Do you live for the rush of dinner service? Did you learn one new thing today? Did you do one thing better today than you did yesterday?

I've been very fortunate to get where I've gotten as quickly as I have. Yes, I've worked hard for it and yes, every day I realize how much I have to learn. Someone recently asked me if I still like cooking....I love professional cooking. Love it. Walking in to a spotless kitchen first thing in the morning, putting on the coat and apron, knowing the possibilities of the day and working to fulfill them. Yes, I'm a chef. The guys that work with me are chefs, too. Let's not confuse the issue and dilute what we do by referring to every TV personality who shakes a pan and has a sweet set of catch phrases as a chef. They're not.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

You're not talking to the tomatoes.....

OK, stay with me folks. I know that based on the title of this post some of you are going to roll your eyes and think 'OK, I think Andy's been inhaling too many Sharpie fumes because this is just stupid. Who talks to tomatoes?' So, like I said. Stay with me. Grab a Tastycake and read on, brother.

I've been rereading 'Chef's Story' edited by Dorothy Hamilton and Patrick Kuh. The story below came from David Bouley.

The comment 'you're not talking to the tomatoes' was an actual conversation had between 'God of French Chefs Living in Switzerland' Fredy Girardet and 'Captain Amazing' David Bouley. Bouley was working as a cook at Girardet's (an interesting aside here....Gray Kunz was also working in the kitchen at the same time. If the thought of this illicts thoughts of 'Holy shit, those two guys working as cooks in the same kitchen?' then you and I need to hang out.) Anyhow, according to Bouley, Girardet told him he wasn't talking to the tomatoes, put his hand on a tomato and walked off.

This statement rings true today. The idea of 'talking to your tomatoes' simply means that no single item of produce is the same. Our current system of large scale agriculture/supermarkets has taught us that if the produce is pretty, that automatically equals great flavor. It doesn't. Let's use our friend the tomato as an example. I've seen many tomatoes, flats upon flats of perfect looking, huge, red tomatoes. On first glance, they look great. Then I go to touch them. Hard. Rock Hard. Ok, so it failed that test. How about smell? Take a big whiff. Nothing. No smell. Alrighty then, that's two strikes. How about taste? Nothing. No taste. If anything, the only thing you are given is a mealy texture in your mouth. Ummmm, I can't tell you how much I crave mealy textures.....

Choice is very important and we are lucky enough in this country to have it. Use all of your senses.(look at it, touch it, smell it....there's nothing sexier that the smell of tomato stems and......corn silk. Finally, taste the produce) If you simply choose by using your eyes, you'll have a tomato that looks impressive on your windowsill. Awesome, but aren't we trying to EAT this stuff? If you want something pretty to look at, go to TJMAXX and get some prints to hang on your wall.

Here's the next step in 'talking to your tomatoes' and it's something we have to think about a lot at the restaurant. We are lucky enough to have Kathy Glahn supply us with a huge variety of heirloom produce. Obviously, tomato season is in full swing, so we are getting a ton of different tomatoes. Well, each variety of tomato reacts differently to just about everything we try and use it for in the kitchen. Some peel easier than others, some have less acidity than others, some want a little salt to put them over the top, some like lemon oil and a little basil or thyme. So, you have to 'talk to the tomatoes' and see what they want. One very important lesson that Laurence Gottlieb, former Exec. Sous Chef at The Inn at Little Washington, taught me was to always ask what a dish wants. Not what you want it to have. I'd put a dish in front of him and he'd taste and then say, 'OK, but what do the beets want to push them over the top?'

So, what does all this blather mean? Well, here's the Cliff Notes version. When you are reading a recipe, just know that you are working in an extremely fluid environment. Tomatoes don't all act the same way. Flours can vary greatly based on the type of wheat, the mill and the humidity. How was your meat raised? Ask these questions as you are cooking and taste, taste, taste as you go along. Obviously, it helps to know the story behind your food as you're asking these questions..... Just coming to a conclusion, any conclusion can push a dish over the top. Talk to your food. What does it want?

OFF THE SUBJECT....I've been reading a lot of Q&A's with chefs and one question that always gets asked is 'What kind of music do you listen to in your kitchen?' My friend Carol puts her soundtrack at the end of each post. Well, here's the thing. We don't listen to music in the kitchen. I prefer it very quiet, music. However, that doesn't mean that we don't get songs stuck in our head and sing a little bit. Last night, it was 'We are the World.'(I've also been known to belt out 'Don't Cry for me Argentina' when I'm in the shits) In honor of that, I've posted the video below. Please watch it until at least the 5 minute mark. Putting Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder on a split screen is, well, interesting......