The 'artist' in me
I’ve often heard writers talking about a story taking control of them, how once the plot is drawn or the characters outlined or even that they sit down to write, they feel no choice but to resign to that new life taking shape.. They might step in to guide, to shake things up, but mainly they are just along for the ride..
I always found this bizarre, even unbelievable. I know it takes incredible imagination to be a true author or storyteller, but to let go that much, and end up with a masterpiece?? Maybe I don’t understand how to let go that much, and so can’t completely relate.
However. I relate a teeny bit which is why I am writing this. I’m not talking about elevated artistic expression here, no novellas or grand works of art - only menus, nothing important, only a chef’s thoughts. In any case, I do feel like my ‘artistic’ sense is taking up more space lately.
I’ve always considered myself more of a logical, order-phyllic (academic, scientist) type, but with a definite artistic side in my desire to feel unbridled, my need for creativity. I was always creative really, but in a very structured way, and in a very personal way; it’s not like anyone was ever watching. I would draw, I would sing (bad idea), I would write, but I had to work at it. Even as a doodling kid, I worked hard. I stayed up late after my homework writing songs, poetry, and drawing, until I discovered sports and regular high school pursuits (sex, drugs rock and roll, more or less) and got side tracked. Meanwhile, I found math and science which was seductively much more straight forward than all the artsy stuff, and being coaxed by the establishment, I fell into step and followed that path. That’s what the smart people should be doing (the thinking of the time), that’s where you got the pats on the back… It was easy for a while; little did I know that it would lead me on a big detour. Soon enough, I would find my way back in touch with my artistic soul in cooking, although it took ten years or so, and then some.
At first, I took on cooking like any other class or challenge, very studiously, like an academic, but I quickly learnt that my senses had to be engaged; this was different, invigorating, overwhelming. As a young cook, I read so much, I cooked so much, I slaved and I dreamt so much, and years down the road, I think it eventually all came together. I was brainstorming all the time, reading, jotting things down in a journal.. I could always come up with ideas or new menus on a daily basis, or write something when I sat down to do so, but it’s because I already had a handbag of inspirational material to work with from my relentless collection of stimuli, an arsenal of ideas just waiting to be hashed out. Maybe I was moving too fast for the artist in me, or perhaps learning what I had to in order to be able to make the most of it.
Nowadays, I am that same person, but I have to say I fly by the seat of my pants more, I am less influenced by what I see and read, I go with the flow more, I take more risks. Or maybe I take fewer in a way, because I’m less adventurous (in terms of attacking new trends or technologies for the sake of it), I don’t know. It comes down to the fact that I’m less rational, I'm doing whatever I feel like in the here and now, be it because of the forager’s finds, because of a day-dream, or because of something great I tasted in a casse-croute or in an old fashioned French restaurant that struck a chord. I’ll riff on a quirky recipe I saw in some sketchy cookbook or even in Chatelaine, or it might have been a molecular gastronomy acolyte that lit a spark. That’s nothing new, all chefs can’t help but be affected by what’s going on around them, there's definite osmosis going on all the time. But there is less going on around me than ever before and I’m paying attention less and less; my moves are more spontaneous, not calculated. The other night it was after watching a foreign film (not food related at all) that my jostled mind started spewing out ideas. I honestly don’t know what I will be cooking next. That’s the thing. I’m acting more like an artist than ever.
I guess it’s part experience, growing up, and being comfortable in one’s own skin, then part my environment being conducive to letting the artist in me out..
But not quite.
I am short staffed right now, I know my budget, I know my constraints, but I push those limits all the time. I never want to do the same thing twice; I’m always doing new things when it would be more sensible to go with the tried and true. I keep complicating my menus even when I don’t want to, in that I don’t see it as necessary or even adherent to the style I want for myself, beyond it not making business sense. I absolutely hate it if I have to produce a menu more than a week in advance, because I’ve found that when I do that, when the time comes, I don’t feel like cooking whatever I had planned weeks before - no, now I feel like cooking something else and it feels wrong. When I sit down to write my menu for the week, I have ideas swirling around in my head, maybe even some written down (on my ‘to try’ list), but I honestly don’t know what it will end up as before I’m done. And then, I’m like, what the hell, that’s so much MEP! So then, I might do a more practical rewrite, take off homemade pasta, inject Israeli couscous, take off sausage, inject rillettes etc., but more often than not, I don’t. I guess I kind of like the challenge, the ride.
Intellectually, I feel like my style is simple, but I can’t help but notice that although I am not using much fussy technique or big frills, practically speaking, my menus are infallibly intricate: I keep adding subtle layers of flavour, background ingredients, new or old fashioned multi-step recipes in spite of myself. Several times this summer, I cancelled an engagement or a day trip away from the kitchen to stick around in order to reduce my stress and space out my workload, but then found myself adding a few labour intensive components to my menu, or deciding it was all of a sudden imperative that I defrost the freezer, do inventory or do some tests, because now there was the possibility of swinging it. One step forward, two steps backward; my to-do list for the day has to have a few too many items on it, it seems.
The manager/partner side of me is critical of all this. I know that professional cooking and the restaurant business is very little about art, more about organization, manual labour, management and accounting, even common sense. Nancy , why not reproduce some of your more successful, you-can-do-in-your-sleep dishes instead of inventing new ones each week? Nancy , why make your crackers or bread or pasta when you can buy them? Maybe then, you could take the time to clean the fan, and anyway, is it really necessary to degrease the fan twice a week? Nancy , why not cut down on the complexity of each dish, either in the number of steps, or at least in the number of à la minute motions in dressing (labour) for each dish, then you might not have to worry so much about your staff? Nancy , why not cut down on the number of ingredients period? Nancy , do you really need all those expensive top end ingredients when your mission is the wild stuff?
But I feel that no and yes, I am who I am, I cook how I cook, I follow my inclinations, and I can’t (don’t want to) do otherwise. I need to be true to that passion, I need to be evolving. Which is why I am here, that is, still bitten, and in the woods at Les Jardins Sauvages. I have been doing it my way for a while (even with Anne, I worked this way, never really cooking anything I didn’t want to, always with recipes/menus/compositions that came from the heart, from some ingredient I was enamoured with, from some technique I wanted to explore, from some old dish that spoke to me that I wanted to reinvent – that she agreed with, of course). And at the Tavern before, I was free creatively too, only limited by my naiveté and by the somewhat conservative customers. Of course in both places, I had to keep the clientele, establishment and purpose of the restaurant in mind, but in each moment in time, I was fully committed to that particular job while continually pushing my limits. Now, I have another set of constraints, but I have more of an open template that I’ve been slowly moulding into my own (based on François’ reality). All to say, I could not be cooking at some mega star hotel in Dubai or any of those top jobs I was once offered with the freedom I have here and with ingredients I believe in, like I have here. Years in the making, and thanks to the present circumstances, without me realizing it, the artist in me has been unleashed.
In a setting where I finish my own sauces and sear my own meats, with a set chef’s menu, I can change things on a whim, I can do as I like, and ultimately, I know that the food is better for it. It’s so personal, so cooked with love, so true, so in the moment, not to mention the underlying quality of the ingredients from local artisans I love and those foraged by my guy and his team.
What a great way to cook. But I know it’s not the most profitable way, or the easiest way. The day to day logistics of pulling this off in a small country kitchen, amidst fluctuating business and a shortage of resources, often means a lot of stress for everyone involved. An artist maybe, but I’m no peace-and-love, piece-of-cake to work with, more like a whirlwind of seriousness and pressure on the job. But at the end of the day, when everyone is happy, the customers wooed and satiated, the staff paid and proud, the resulting sense of accomplishment and gratifying exhaustion makes it all seem worth it. To me anyway. Until the next day when I’m in the juice again.. but don’t have time to think, just do-do-do until the curtain closes and that rush comes again. Maybe François who pays the bills and runs around like a chicken with his head cut off trying to keep my larder stocked and check off my many lists, has more than the occasional second thought. Poor François, he courted a chef who seemed like she had her wits about her, and he ended up with an unpredictable artist. Especially that he is one of sorts too, it all makes for a colourful life, both in business and outside.
Yes, at times it indeed seems like a crazy life, and not much of one outside the restaurant, which would no doubt be made simpler without any artist in the equation. But then would it all be worth it? The endless hours sweating it out, with so little stability or security, so much peddling and damage control, so few days off.. Then again, there is so much excitement and action, and so much beauty, so much gratification, so many good people, so much good food and wine, so many laughs, so many more highs than lows..
No, I wouldn’t have it any other way; that’s me, that’s us, that’s this business. And besides, it just might be that ‘la vie d’artiste’ ‘malgré tout’, is the best elixir ‘dans un monde de fou’.