Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Well Read, Well Fed (Installment 7)

I recently finished reading Micheal Ruhlman's book Soul of a Chef. I had first heard of Ruhlman when Anthony Bourdain had him as his sidekick on the fabulous Las Vegas episode of No Reservations.I also enjoy reading Ruhlman's blog pretty regularly.

Soul of a Chef has 3 parts. The first follows a group of chefs taking the Certified Master Chef exam. This is a thorough, grueling 10-day culinary test that very few Chef's have passed. Reading about it via Ruhlman is amazing. The emotion and skill of the candidates, the toughness of the judges. I'm always intrigued by people who are so into what they do. Those who choose to take the CMC do so on their own time and money, for a distinction that is well-respected and impressive, but not at all necessary to be a successful chef.

In the second part of the book, Ruhlman hangs out with chef Micheal Symon at his restaurant in Cleveland, Lola Bistro. Micheal is young and successful. His is a more laid-back casual style of cooking/eating. People love his food and his personality. This part of the book is more about the pleasure of food... versus the technique and formality of the CMC.

The third part of the book was the most intriguing to me. Micheal spent time with Thomas Keller at his super-famous French Laundry. Keller is did not go to Culinary school. Ruhlman traces Keller's footsteps to becoming the world-famous, well-respected chef he is today. And now I seem to be obsessed with Thomas Keller and the French Laundry. It's now a new travel destination dream for me. The food sounds amazing, and the way the kitchen works and how Keller thinks/works is so interesting and inspiring. I've since looked through the French Laundry Cookbook. It's intimidating to me, especially after reading how detail-oriented Keller is. I don't know that I'd want to attempt one of his recipes in my haphazard home-cook ways after knowing how much care and thought he puts into food, and how much every little thing makes a difference. It is a good cookbook, though, if you're not a scardey-cat like me. The in-between chapters on basics are very informative, and the whole thing is just gorgeous to look through.

One blogger, Carol, isn't intimidated, though. She couldn't get reservations, so she decided to cook EVERY recipe in the French Laundry cookbook. She's crazy, and kind of my hero. This girl did get a chance to eat there. Sounds wonderful, and she has some tips on how to get in there. It's not exclusive or anything, just small and very popular.

It's been like a week and a half since I've finished the book and started trying to write a post about it, but I can't seem to write about it properly. It's a great book and you should read it. I'll tell ya that much. It's too much for me to go into deeply, I think. There were lots of very eye-opening/thought provoking/exciting moments. You just need to read it, that's all.

Here's the part where Ruhlman interviews Keller's mushroom lady, Connie Greene:
When Connie first had dinner at the French Laundry, not long after it opened, she knew something unusual was afoot in the kitchen. She had come with two friends, and when one course appeared endowed with a nautical theme, complete with a flagpole skewer onto which was hoisted a flag like sauteed duck kidney, she wanted to laugh. "There seemed to be some kind of irony that was going on," Connie recalled, "some kind of inside joke. It was as if the beauty of the food weren't enough." And then it struck her like a gong; she knew the truth. "Thomas Keller," she said, "Is Dr. Seuss's illegitimate child."

Those two observations–Dr. Seuss (what post-World War II American childhood was not filled with Dr. Seuss?) and inside irony–were new to me, but I sensed immediately she was right. They provided the key.

Reichl's review had made special note of a dish Keller called oysters and pearls, a sabayon–a savory custard, really–with pearl tapioca, an oyster, and caviar. I'd eaten this dish, and it made me laugh, not just a chuckle bu an extended, quiet laughing, as if someone was telling me a hilarious story. I had been dining solo, so I probably looked no different from a person you see on a park bench carrying on an animated conversation with himself.

When I hung out in the kitchen, there was time for brief exchanges with Keller before he walked off to put something away, to get something, to take a phone call, or answer any number of questions from his cooks. I asked him why he thought to put an oyster in tapioca pudding. He said, "Certain things you just know." When I pressed, he said "It's just logical."

I said, "Putting an oyster in tapioca is not a logical thing to do."

"For me it was," he said.
"Tapioca, pearls," he said. "Where do pearls come from? Pearls come from oysters, right? So to me it's completely logical. How does is taste to you?"
I asked, "What do you think?"
"I've never tasted it," he said.
"Excuse me?"
"I know that's not a good thing for me to say," he confessed. "But I know it tastes good. You don't have to stick your hand in fire to know it's hot." And he headed out of the kitchen towards the walk-in.

Oysters and pearls is a very sensual, perhaps sexual dish, what with the aphrodisiacal oyster, the creamy-slippery mouth feel, the rich sabayon, the pearls, the salty-fishy-ocean perfume of the caviar, But it can seem plain silly as well.

Awesome! Also? I can't resist sharing this part where Ruhlman recalls the best food he's ever tasted...a calf's brain prepared by Keller:
Offal was the true test of the chef. If you could take organ meats and transform them into exquisite dishes, that was cooking. My Webster's dictionary defines offal as "(1) waste parts; esp. entrails, etc. of a butchered animal (2) refuse;garbage."

Keller had made a tasting menu, then, of "garbage," eight courses of it for seventy bucks.

He began this with the truffle custard, here served with a sweetbread ragout. Next, a crispy medallion on calf's brain with a celeriac puree and black truffles. (I eventually had Keller's calf brain, and it was so good I almost tipped over in my chair at Table Five in the middle of dinner, slowly and to the side, as though I'd been turned into concrete from euphoric surprise. I later told Keller how good it tasted and remarked on how hot the thing was when it got to the table. He smiled and said, "I know. Brain stays hot forever. It's like tar." Now that I think of it, far away from Keller and the French Laundry, I can't name any dish anywhere ever that has been better. That, I realize now, in contended retrospect, was the best dish I have ever eaten. It had a delicious crisp exterior and fatty, molten, succulent interior. It was extraordinary. Calf's brain. "Garbage.")

seriously. go get the book and read it for yourself.

No comments: