Friday, March 02, 2007

lenten journal: a league of our own

Since Opening Day is officially less than a month away, I guess it's OK to use a baseball metaphor: this weekend I feel like I've been called up to the big leagues.

Tonight we had a rehearsal dinner for thirty, tomorrow a fundraising dinner for 275 -- as well as a tasting for a couple who is getting married this summer, and Sunday there is our regular brunch (for about fifty) and then five tastings in the afternoon, each one wanting different things off our function menu. It's my job to get all of those things done, and done well.

My “staff” today consisted of Alfonso, who did a great job. Tomorrow, Pedro and Fernando will join him. We will have a good time together and I will spend most of the day not understanding a word that is being said. We have a lot to do and, when it comes time to serve the meal tomorrow night, it will all be done and the meal will be great. I think it’s one of the main reasons I love cooking for a living. I like the pressure, I like challenge, and I like finding a way to make it happen.

In The Soul of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman talks about going through training at the Culinary Institute of America and writes:

I remember this exchange between a chef and his bachelors class in the CIA’s four year program:

Chef: “How long does it take to make rice pilaf?”
Class: “Twenty minutes.”
Chef: “How long does it take to make pilaf if service is in sixteen minutes?”
Class: “Sixteen minutes.”

You got it done. No matter what.
You like it this way. You’re a chef.
Making things happen requires titrating the balance between organization, creativity and mechanics. Let me clarify my terms. Organizing, for me, means making lists (and checking them at least twice) so I don’t get ready to plate the meal and wonder where the mashed potatoes are. It’s my job to make sure everything they asked for shows up on the plate. Creativity comes in fleshing out what is written on the page. The banquet order said “herb crusted chicken.” After consulting with Chef, what that meant for the dinner tonight was a mixture of finely diced fresh Italian parsley and lemon thyme, some Montreal steak seasoning, and enough oil to make a paste we could press on the top of the chicken breast. Mechanics describes the assembling of the dishes. It took me over an hour to pull the little thyme leaves off the stems and make the herb mixture. It turned out well, but it took a lot longer than I thought. Still, we got it done.

One of the lessons I learn over and over is the difference between a good dish and a great dish is often in the very small details. How the food is presented is the easiest example. Tonight, the banquet order said desert was “cheesecake with coulis and fresh berries.” Chef had ordered blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. I did one small thing to the plate (which I had see Chef do at another time) and an average desert came out looking special. We zigzagged the coulis across the plate and then turned the slice of cheesecake on its end, so it sat up on the plate like a triangular sculpture surrounded by the different berries. People actually oohed and aahed when the plates came out.

The big group coming to eat tomorrow night wanted something called a Genovese salad, which was a new term to me. What I learned is it is a salad of roasted tomatoes and fresh mozzarella served over mixed greens with balsamic vinaigrette. The small detail we are going to add is a different kind of crouton: a slice of breaded and fried eggplant like we make for Eggplant Parmigana. Thanks to my brilliant idea, tomorrow we have to slice, bread, and fry three hundred pieces of eggplant. Nice.

Sometimes the challenge is to stay precise and intentional in the midst of repetition. Tomorrow morning we have to wrap three hundred shrimp with pancetta (Italian bacon), dip them in basil oil and grill them. One of us has to stand at the electric slicer for as long as it takes to cut three hundred pieces of pancetta and then we all get to stand around the table wrapping shrimp for what I imagine will be a good part of the morning. All for something that will be gone it two bites and is meant to keep you busy while we’re getting the entrĂ©e ready. And it’s just one of the four passed hors d’oeuvres.

Tomorrow I’m going to cook almost three hundred chicken breasts. I’ve never done that before. I’m charge of preparing and plating meals for almost three hundred people and serve their appetizers, salads, and dinners all within about an hour and a half. I’ve never done that either.

I’m a little daunted by the whole thing (can you tell?) and I’m really excited. I wonder if this is what it feels like to swing a bat at Fenway when you’ve gotten used to the fences in Pawtucket. I’m nervous and I know I can do it. Swinging for the fences is swinging for the fences. regardless of the park.

I think it was Tuesday or Wednesday of this week that I read the passage I quoted earlier from Ruhlman’s book. I laughed when I read it because I knew Ginger would read it and laugh, too. I thought about it driving home tonight not because today was anything like the CIA, but because I hung in there today until the meal was done and done well. I even heard myself say to Robert at one point when he was lamenting how short-staffed we were, “Hey, the point is we’ll get it done. It’s what we do.” I probably should have footnoted Ruhlman after I said it.

He’s right. I do like it this way.

Peace,
Milton

2 comments:

The Cubicle Reverend said...

How on earth do you find the time to do anything? sounds like you are always at the restaurant.

zorra said...

Milton, I think my inner chef is living vicariously through your cooking posts. Wish I could have helped y'all wrap and grill the shrimp this morning.
There is so much joy in the kitchen.