Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing up here. Most days I do love it, but it IS another world...
I should be eating my next words now, because as mushroom madness hits, this next couple of weeks, I will indeed be working 80+ hours a week, and there will be plenty of adrenalin flowing... This wild mushroom event is the peak of the season here, and so much fun, but a ton of work, with stress levels that approach those of the real world. Lets hope François and I don't kill eachother...
If you're interested in coming, I've posted the menu, or visit www.jardinssauvages.com. Ok, c'est parti, see you later.
St-Roch, Planet Mars
Nancy Hinton, 25-10-06
Up here at la Table des Jardins Sauvages in St-Roch d’Achigan, I feel like I have stepped off the planet of professional cheffing, that I am no longer in the real world. Just about everything is different from my restaurant kitchen experience up to now. It can be unsettling at times. I seldom work eighty-hour weeks; I don’t spend my days running after dozens of suppliers, managing a brigade of cooks, variable food and labor costs, dealing with fussy customers, running several menus at once. No, here, things are pared down to the bare essence of a restaurant meal. One fixed menu, one seating on reservation only, so a predetermined number of customers, and I only have one person or two to boss around. Because it is out of the way and out of the ordinary, patrons are generally eager and adventurous, primed for a good time, and it’s BYOB. We’re largely self sufficient in terms of raw materials. A few ingredients are outsourced, but we have venison and a multitude of wild plants, fruits and vegetables in our own backyard. Things are at their simplest, except in that we go all out in the kitchen. Many cooks fantasize about this kind of operation. I definately felt like I was in paradise this summer, with an abundance of beautiful produce to cook with. I would break up my prep with a pause around 3pm, put on my bathing suit and wade down the river to go pick my herbs and flowers for the night; what a treat.
A typical week for me consists of a day of cleaning and planning to begin with. I write the menu for the week, and draw up my lists. A day of shopping and errands ensues, while François picks or arranges for the rest. I do a day or so of pure MEP, and then a few days of service, with usually at least Sunday or some other day off. Some weeks, there is less cooking, and more picking, processing and preserving, all in accordance with nature’s rythyms and François’ less than linear patterns.
You see, François does things the old fashioned way. He is very Slowfood, without even knowing what that is exactly. He picks berries and greens and mushrooms the way his grandmother showed him. He makes full use of everything around him, while respecting nature. He knows the forests and fields like the back of his hand, and has stuff, both cultivated and wild, growing everywhere on his property. He pays close attention to how the plants and trees and mushrooms and birds are doing; he tends to them like his babies. He makes this pemmican like mixture for his woodpeckers, gourmet food for birds. He has close ties with everyone around, trading mushrooms for maple syrup; he returns the empty baskets to the berry guy and the egg cartons to the egg guy. He chats to all the farmers, he knows who grows what and how, who the good guys are to support; he knows who pollutes and cheats. He is sharply tuned into his little world. And he follows his palette, unaffected by foodie trends and what’s going on in NYC. While I brought some professionalism and a refined touch to his rustic woodland table, his way with food has taught me a lot, brought be back to the basics, opened my eyes to nature, and given me new perspective.
I became close to the product and the land, and deepened my passion and understanding for food at l’Eau à la Bouche with Anne Desjardins. François took me further. No truffles here, why would we? With so many other mushrooms coming out of ears, and all these under exploited aromatic greens in our backyard, we don’t need much else. He’s constantly in the woods surveying every shrub. Daily, he reports some novelty, that a certain sprout or mushroom or berry is out, while something else is not far off, while something else is fading. He is always predicting the weather.
When it is fiddlehead time, that’s when the big rush begins, with weeks of long, backbreaking days, followed by all the washing, blanching and freezing or pickling. Then it’s the roots, and the flowers, making them into pastes, syrups, coulis, and vinegars, pickling, candying, or drying them. Then the marine plants come in July, so more blanching and freezing, some pesto, some dried herbs. The climax for François is the mushrooms, which we dry, freeze, and make into oil, butter, mustard, powder, duxelles, stuffings... depending on the mushroom. From the first signs of spring to long after the first frosts, it is a frenzy of eating fresh, and of putting up, processing for the year. That’s how we can be somewhat self-sufficient. And it is great to have all this produce harvested locally at its peak. Beats imports any day, except for maybe in February or March, when you’re just dying for something new and crunchy and green. Very different from ordering fresh and frequent from 40 odd suppliers, which was until recently, what I thought was the epitome of fine food sourcing, I found myself suddenly much more in tune with what was truly seasonal and fresh. And this way of working is much more sustainable, more sound, and probably more nutritious, certainly safer. We still follow the seasons, and take full advantage of everything in its prime, but we just save some for later, so that we are able to continue to cook locally and wild year round. Especially that for François’ business, that is what people come for.
There are drawbacks of course, besides the fact that winter is just a month or two too long. Because we don’t operate day in, day out, there is not a cooler full of food ready and a full staff always in house. We have to plan ahead, getting what we need in terms of food and help depending on the day, the number of reservations, which can fluctuate from 0 to 200 in a week, not unlike a catering business. Because I am alone in the kitchen apart from on big service days, I must be more organized than ever, with the menu planned with the lack of space and extra hands in mind. I must always keep a rotation of certain basic preparations like stocks, some charcuterie, pesto, and pie crust or tuile batter for instance, in store, so that I don’t have to start completely from scratch for each dinner; there just aren’t enough hours in a day when you’re a staff of one. But if I’m well organized, I can pull off a pretty elaborate menu, and I get to finish every sauce, tend to every detail myself, making sure everything is just so. Being master of my domain, fully in control of whatever comes out of the kitchen, is a good feeling. I don’t have to explain and train, then check, and double check every garnish and plate presentation, I just do it. I don’t have to write down recipes, I can change things on a whim, I am free. And I can’t blame anyone but myself if something isn’t up to snuff, I only have myself to answer to, which is enough, thank you.
The best thing about this place though, is the ambiance, which is a result of the setting, the clients, and the spirit of the place (François) combined. Because people have made this an outing, chosen something different, and driven out of their bubble, they are in escape mode, on a mini-vacation of sorts. They are more open-spirited than after a day’s work in the city, they feel nature around them; they are generally in a good mood, and ready to have a good time. The place is informal, so that people feel at home instantly. There is something to talk about, as many things they see around them or will taste are new to them, they are often like kids on a field trip. What an easy crowd to cook for! I know that if I do my job well, they will be enchanted; they are already half there. Sure, we come across the odd guest who is difficult, not up to trying something new or odd sounding, but nothing like in the city on a regular night in most restaurants. This is the most heavenly aspect of my current gig according to any cook friends I speak to who are relentlessly inundated with special orders and cranky clients. That and being able to jump in the river before and after service on a hot summer day.
Sure, sometimes, I miss the madness of the real world. I certainly wish I had a commis or two when I have 50 lb of chanterelles to clean, or 20 lb of sunchokes to peel, or when I need a massage. Last night, I could have used another strong cook to trust the venison to, while I finished the quail, it would have been smoother. On some days, I just miss the company and dynamics of a good brigade. I miss the stressful dance of coordinating different stations for an order, the juice and the mayhem of a crazy night, and the beers after. Sometimes, I just want to use regular ginger, not wild ginger, or plain old basil even if it’s not wild, or cook fish from across the globe. So, every now and again, I do, goddamn it. And I still need to know what’s going on in NYC. Thank God for the Internet. I need to keep a toe or two in the real world in case I return, and to stay true to who I am and how I like to cook.
But, I’m not quite ready to leave yet. When I have the occasional flashback, and the crazy life beckons, I step outside for a smoke by the bonfire, and hear the river rushing by. I am soon joined by ecstatic customers who make me feel like family and the queen at the same time, and I realize how good I have it here. And when François surprises me in the kitchen daily with his pickings: some wild oyster mushrooms to cook up, a cupful of the sweetest, miniature wild strawberries or a bouquet of wild clover flowers and mint, I feel so lucky I could explode. Ok, it’s not always perfect harmony… He thinks I’m too uptight and methodical, I think he’s too relaxed and disorganized. Worlds colliding.. but when it works, its great.
This place has been my world for close to a year now, and it has made me a better cook in some ways for sure. In calming me down, and grounding me, for one. Even though in many ways, this is more real than the real world, it still does not ever feel real to me, more like a dream that I’m awake in, partly because things are too wholesomely good, I think. Also because as soulful and welcoming as it is, it doesn’t feel like home. Like I’m a visitor on an enlightening find-yourself, get-away trip. No matter how laid back, “peace and love” I want to be, I’m just not. I guess I’m a city girl at heart, I like my adrenalin rushes, and need stimulating people around me. And I hate mosquitos.
Perhaps it is inevitable that I will sooner or later leave this bucolic, saner pace of life to return to the madness, far from the farm and the woods, where I will always be bitching and grappling with that gap. Maybe I have changed too much now for the city to feel like home either. So working in the city with a boyfriend in the country sounds like the ideal recipe then. We’ll have to see. Hopefully, I am still tough enough to put up with all the crap of the real world. At least it won’t smell like crap all the time.