Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Weed Whacking

I generally have a hard time admitting when I’ve bit off more than I can chew. So, when I agreed to make more than 1,000 pastries for a 300-guest wedding in addition to my full-time job as pastry chef at a renown restaurant and my part-time job as a corporate coffee barista, I figured that a few more hours in the kitchen could only be a good thing: more practice, more catering, and, most importantly, more money. I took it on without thinking twice or looking back even once.

The wedding reception was set for July 7th, 2007. Thirty-three percent more couples got married on triple-seven than any other day of the year, so I felt pretty special to be a part of the whoop-la. The chances of my being wed on 07/07/07 were less than zero, so catering was my only in. Besides, as I always say - those who don’t wed, cater.

Catering is one of my favorite things. When I attended culinary school, I never intended to work in a restaurant, even though Fate had different plans. I am, and have always been, deeply interested in catering small dinner parties and events. The intimacy of the interaction with customers, getting to know their personality to create a menu distinctly for them, has always held such appeal for me. Living in France, I was able to cater a few small formal dinners and to this day they remain the most fun work I have ever done. Except for rolling out 300 buttermilk biscuits every morning for six months. That’s the apex of fun. But when I got the opportunity to be the pastry chef for this huge wedding event, I jumped at it.

I received the e-mail with the seemingly innocuous dessert menu four days before the event. On first glance, it was pretty straightforward: mini key lime tarts, petit fours, ├ęclairs and profiteroles, mini flourless chocolate cakes, and mini cheesecake bites. After three hours of math (figuring portion size, ingredient amounts, components, temperature and time for baking, etc), I deemed it a surmountable task. What I didn’t take into account was the inevitable time crunch. Whip 1,000 servings, 7 different pastries, and 2 other time-devouring jobs until fluffy. Fold in endless fatigue, a sick pet rabbit, and gallons of sweat and bake. A recipe for disaster.

On the morning of Saturday the 7th, my best friend and I had our pet rabbit euthanized. The ordeal took more than the three hours out of my day. It also took all of my emotional commitment to my work and threw it in the incinerator with our white-and-tan bundle of joy. In the restaurant business we use the term “in the weeds” or “weeded” to describe a situation in which there is no way (short of a foodservice miracle) that all the food will be at the ‘ready’ stage on time. Saturday morning, I was past the weeds and into the rainforest. To get out of the jam, I would have needed more than a Troy-bilt lawnmower chipper-shredder. I needed a team of Amazon indigenous persons with machetes in hand and blowdarts to fend off Poison Dart frogs.

By 7:15pm, guests began arriving at the historic Exchange office building in Thomasville, Georgia – 45 minutes to the north on armadillo-strewn County Road 319. Two buffet tables sat in the middle of the rococo ballroom drenched in magenta and black flowers and ribbons and candles. After 2 hours of fretting over melted ganache, bruleeing the meringue on top of the key lime tarts, barking out orders to my impromptu assistants, filling the profiteroles, and topping the cheesecake with finely-chopped strawberries, we overflowed the tables with beautiful platters of sandwiches, fruit, and sweet things.

Taking some trash down the elevator, I ran into the bride’s father, a tall, handsome salt-and-pepper gentleman with a genuine smile and ice-blue eyes that glistened with tears. He thanked me for making his daughters wedding great. “We have been to 6 weddings this summer alone, and we had the best food at our own. We were so blessed to have had you. Thank you.”

At the end of the day, as the last guests danced to Don’t Stop Believin’, everyone was happy. Backbreaking and heartbreaking though it was, no one noticed that there was not marzipan on the petit fours, the ganache on the ├ęclairs had melted into almost non-existence, and the meringue on the key-lime tarts had begun to weep. The bride and groom were off to Jamaica, and Steve Perry was on the speakers. It couldn’t have been better.

Looking back, I probably should have looked before I leapt. I probably should have taken into account that the restaurant was going to be closed for a week and would reopen on the Friday before the wedding – doubling my workload at the restaurant and leaving me little time to get anything done for the wedding before the night-crew came into the kitchen and usurped my stove and convection oven. But I didn’t. Through my tears, I lit my blowtorch.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hollywood Goes Back To the Kitchen: Ratatouille

“Have you seen Ratatouille?” That’s how my conversations have started for the last two weeks since the movie about a rat-chef in Paris came to theatres. Here is the answer for all of you. Yes. I have seen it. Yes. I loved it.

For my readers who haven’t seen this movie yet, Ratatouille is about an unusual rat in the French countryside who longs to live his dream of being a great restaurant chef in Paris. Events transpire in the luckiest and unluckiest of ways, and he gets his wish. It’s a hilarious and touching Pixar film about how by small means, great things can happen if you just have a little faith in yourself and your friends. Spend the $9 and go see it.

The thing that impressed me about Ratatouille was not the storyline (predictable as it was), or the humor (a typical Pixar mix of adult themes and Stooges-esque slapstick CG antics) – it was the accuracy and delicate nuances of restaurant kitchens that they magically captured. The restaurant kitchen is a highly complex and fluid environment. When one works in a restaurant kitchen for an extended period of time, one develops what Bill Buford, author of Heat, calls the “kitchen sense.” You become finely attuned to the way things move, smell, and feel in the kitchen and eventually become an integral part of the whole. The restaurant kitchen is a living thing, the cooks are its organs, and together, we create a separate entity – fuller, richer, and more complete than the sum its parts. Ratatouille did so much to portray this. The smallest details – the dish machine, the call of “coming down the line!!” in the background, the stacks of eggs on the pastry station – it was all so tangible that it made going to work the next day like stepping back into the movie.

Of course we all have our favorite parts of the movie. The best line, of course is when Remy says to his brother, “You don’t know what it is…and you’re going to EAT IT!? You can’t just HORK it down!” Perfect. I have to remind myself to not hork down the gorgeous plum-glazed lamb shank I plan on eating this weekend. But, bar none, the best moment in the movie is when the cooks find the rats in the restaurant for the first time, and they all grab a weapon with which to fend off the vermin. The pastry chef (second to the left in the still), true to form, grabs the blowtorch. It’s true – it’s real – and it’s spot on.

I can’t imagine the amount of time that the animators at Pixar had to have spent in restaurant kitchens in order to do the research necessary to make the movie so incredibly accurate, and not just within the restaurant, but in Paris in general. Down to the street signs, the rendition of Parisian landscape, skyline, street layout, and ambiance was incredible – down to all of the patrons of the restaurant, at the parties, or on the streets wearing black. They really do. The plating of each dish in the movie was enough to make any chef take notes and sketches.

But perhaps the best thing that came from the release of the movie is that when I buy eggplant, zucchini, squash, bell peppers, and tomatoes, I won’t hear a chorus of “Rata-WHAT?” when my friends ask what I’m making.