In grade school our cafeteria had the entire month's lunches posted in a calendar-menu on the door to the kitchen. When I see this on refrigerators I get nostalgic. Not for New York City hot lunch tater-tots or tiny cartons of chocolate milk, but for the orderly-ness of it.
And I wish I'd kept all those multi-colored sporks.
Professional kitchens are never as spontaneous as they make the diner feel they are. Even when a restaurant "changes the menu daily" food and dishes are recycled, or put on a rotation so as to change things up and rearrange ingredients. Menu writing is an art with much rope in play for poetic license.
At The French Laundry, Thomas sat down with all the cooks at the end of every night's service to discuss the next days menu. Cooks vied for ingredients and sous chefs placed orders. If the poissoniere wanted English peas and said so before the canape station spoke up, they were his. Thomas wanted the courses to have as few repeats as possible.
But because kitchens needs to order most ingredients well in advance, we all had some idea of what was going to be on the menu from one day to the next. Unlike working for Apple we were not sworn to secrecy, but all worked the illusion of pulling perfectly butchered rabbits out of hats.
In my latest consulting job I need to come up with simple, straightforward desserts which rate low on the maintenance scale. It reminds me a bit of Bouchon where I had to create dishes which could be plated swiftly and easily, as garde manger was responsible for plating desserts after I left. What I figured out was that all the finesse; the internal beauty of the dessert needed to be in the method, the ingredients, the soul of the food. No fancy tuile flourishes, no tiny dots of sauce or baked-to-order cakes.
God is in the details.
When Thomas placed me at Bouchon he explained that anybody can wow a diner with food they don't recognize. Fantastical creations with disparate ingredients can surprise and delight (or dismay) but they don't trigger our body's memory of what "it should taste like." He explained to me on the deck of his house that what I was being asked to do at Bouchon was much harder than I might know.
"Creating the same simple lemon tart day after day, week after week, making it perfect and continuously consistent, this would be the challenge. Because people will come back for it again and again and need it to be what they know a lemon tart to be."
What I strive to do in my work is to listen to the ingredients, understand their properties and allow them to speak for themselves in their own voices, their own languages. Lemon desserts should be tart and strong. Melons should melt in your mouth, give you little to bite down on, seduce you with their musk. Peaches should make you blush with their generosity: hours later, in your elbow, you should discover mysterious stickiness, but you will not be limber enough to lick it away. Corn should make you remember childhood summers. Salt should have distinctive characteristics, and always be present in the company of chocolate & caramel. Whipped cream should remind you of cumulus clouds and fresh herbs should be accents which complement and compliment.
It's refreshing to be at a job making simple pretty frosted cakes, challenging to re-organize a kitchen's (and clientele's) way of viewing sweets, and exciting to be standing there as summer fruit approaches. I hope you'll stop by Poulet, a 27 year old, quirky, unpretentious deli ~ restaurant and have a taste of our kitchen's offerings.
And whether you have had my desserts or not I think you'll find both familiar and surprise alike!
~ desserts in rotation this week:
svelte chocolate pudding with chantilly, the perfect snickerdoodle, caramel & toasted coconut cream puffs, Granny Smith apple, rhubarb and toasted walnut crisp, buttery citrus shortbread, Linzer Torte, the most amazing lemon cream (can you say Tartine?) and a moist caramel cake with caramelized butter & vanilla bean frosting.