Whipping Up a Dish

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On the blog Food Wishes Video, a young chef asks “How do I create something special from available ingredients?”

This receives a fantastic reply in the comments:

Dear young chef:

I was lucky. I worked in a restaurant with a French woman who believed in the daily special. We usually had three on the menu, one each from the sous chef, the saucier and her. She would take the junior chefs out with her to the farmers markets and the fishing dock at 5:30 AM, and challenge us, half asleep, to come up with her recipe by looking at what was there.

Moreover, she would challenge our ideas. “Where will the sweet come from,” she would ask. “The bitter? How will you add richness, or set off the richness? How much of it can you prep ahead to make service faster? What stations will need to be shown the recipe? Can you keep it on the board if you run out of something (other than the protein), i.e., are there substitutions available?”

But the MOST IMPORTANT question she taught me to ask is, “What’s in season?” She did it because the things in season are always the cheapest, and she was trying to run a profit. Now, I do it because of flavor. So when peaches are in season, grilled peach granita (which really is as easy as it sounds!) it is. When it’s not, something else.

There are only four flavor elements (sweet, salty, bitter and sour) and what the Japanese call Umame (sp?), mouth feel. Think of every recipe you currently know in terms of those five elements, plus richness. Deconstruct them. All of them. From the simplest vinnaigrette to the most delicate sauce you make, think about them in terms of the balance of those elements they have. Then, try to bring those same proportions together using what’s in front of you. You’ll find that, in place of a hollandaise, you might like an enriched reduction of stock with a hint of sherry vinegar. Or something COMPLETELY different. But it will all come together, and, in your mind, it will be easy because it’s just a hollandaise but replacing the egg “custard” with reduced stock and cream. And it will be COMPLETELY yours.

My favorite night I ever worked, we were faced with perfect little hungarian sweet peppers. We bought every pepper the farmer had and smoked them (back in the days before everything on earth was being smoked) in the afternoon, before the prep cooks showed up. Then we used those in a pan sauce for a rack of lamb preparation. We added a touch of sour cream at the end, and, for lack of a better name, whimsically put it on the board as “rack of goulash.” And all because these perfect peppers called our names. I was GOING to find a way to use these, and, with her guidance and help, we created a wonderful dish.

Marie passed away about 4 years ago, and it’s been years since I cooked for a living. (You must know it by now, but cooking for a living is one of the hardest ways to make a living I can imagine.) But as I walk through the market with my wife, deciding what we’re going to eat that week, I still ask myself all of the same questions she asked the scared 20 year old untrained me. And when a dish sings, I still thank her.

Good luck. I mean that sincerely. I hope you run into a chef as smart, as talented and as willing to teach as Marie was, and that you find satisfaction and creativity in your career.