by Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2005)
I didn’t know Bernard Loiseau personally. I do know that he was a great chef. Like everyone, I was horrified that he killed himself. But am I shocked? No.
He epitomized the real haute cuisine chef: passionate, driven, a perfectionist, confident and wise-cracking with a sizable ego, someone to admire, yet racked with self doubt, and a selfless desire to please. The kind of person that is drawn to and succeeds in this profession is all these things, and often in conflict by nature. Given this and the difficult nature of the business, I find cracking easy enough to understand.
Ok, maybe he was bipolar, which implies a huge struggle in life no matter. But, my hunch is that many chefs are. I know the prototype and can see the potential consequences. He thrived on the satisfaction of meeting high standards and pleasing, but was torn by the pressures, both internal and external. So utterly seduced and driven by the ride to the height of French gastronomy, to be ultimately destroyed by it.. I can see it.
Mental illness aside (there is a huge grey area between sane and crazy anyway), I think that it is the dichonomy of a big ego and enormous self doubt that is the source of much strange behavior on the part of chefs. Add to that all the demands on a chef, and voilà, cocktail bomb. The arduous work, relentless pressure, attention to detail day in, day out, as well as the compassion, generous nature and people skills required, all exasperating the situation, eventually making an innately unstable person crack. It takes much introspection, self discipline and self help, not to mention a solid entourage to stay sane. It takes love from close ones who see straight, to help make the huge efforts necessary to keep it all in balance. And maybe some yoga; I hear it works wonders.
I have never been in the shoes of a Michelin star chef, but I can only imagine. The life of a wound up chef as myself, taken to the extreme. It can only lead to the brink of madness. Even if this life of hard work and intense pressure is partly self imposed, it's the name of the game, with always so much to do and improve, again and again. And so full of criticism, you can’t please everybody, and that’s difficult enough to accept for a chef. Then, in a moment of weakness, you let go for a minute, a less than snuff product makes it in the door, a plate goes out overcooked, and your pride is shot, a Michelin star is lost. A chef is only as good as his last dish. It shouldn’t mean a life, but in a world out of whack, it’s not surprising . Think of how many lives go into a Michelin star, which can be taken away in a heartbeat.
God bless his soul; well, you know what I mean. And bring on the yoga.
Cheap meat – not a good idea
Nancy Hinton (Food Writing 2006)
In the natural scheme of things, beef cattle graze on pastures, feeding on grass and ruminating, thereby transforming the cellulose in that grass to protein, an efficient natural process. Cows on corn in feed lots is another story. Why is this the way most of our beef is produced? Because its economical, it makes them grow fast and get fat, and corn is cheap. (Only because we’ve made it cheap by overproducing it and subsidizing it.) Like humans on a candybar diet, this unnatural diet makes them sick (bloat, acid stomach, liver disease), and so they need to be administered antibiotics, all kinds. And we don’t like that when we know about it, most often we don’t.
Not only is corn bad for the cow, its bad for the environment. Nonetheless, we grow alot of it, mostly for feeding livestock. It pollutes with nitrogen run-off, the dead zones created, and the enormous amount of fuel used to produce the pesticides that are used in producing corn. There’s also the issue of monoculture in the production of crops such as corn, which started the whole industry of commercial petroleum pesticides in the first place. All in all, it takes 100 gallons of oil to grow one cow.
And there are more hidden costs when it comes to corn. Corn is heavily subsidized. (It costs 3$ to produce a bushel of corn and feedlots pay 2.25$) So, its relatively inexpensive to raise a cow on a feedlot (1.60$/day for 32lb of meat) but meat also is sold at a low price, making it hard for the farmer not to follow. Same story for hormone use. For 1.50$ more, the farmer gets 40-50lb more weight, or 25-35$, he would lose money otherwise. Especially that often, his equipment was fronted by these big corporations, locking him even further. He is trapped in a viscious circle of a system.
The biggest problem with the feedlot system is what it means for food safety. E-coli infected meat comes from traces of manure left on the carcass at the slaughterhouse because the cows spend their lives sitting and standing in their own manure. E-coli doesn’t exist in grass eating cows; its an acid tolerant bacteria that only developed to survive the acidified guts of cows on a corn diet. So now, we have to irradiate the carcass, spray the meat with high tech solutions to get rid of a bacteria that wouldn’t be there if we weren’t feeding them corn.
Cheap meat is a myth if you consider the associated public health and environmental costs. The antibiotics that don’t work, the food poisoning, the food safety issues, the hormones in our drinking water, the wasteful use of water and energy, the environmental damage.
At the very least, a sustainable system with no antibiotics would increase the cost 10%, tranlating into a more accurate price for beef.
If we ate less cheap beef and spent more for better quality meat, it would make a huge difference to everyone except for the bad guys in big agri-business. Not to mention that grass fed beef has a healthier fat profile than corn fed beef, with less saturated fat.
To know more, read anything by Michael Pollen, and The Way we Eat, by Jim Mason.
Choose quality, buy local
Out with the big and bland, in with the small, sweet and succulent
by Nancy Hinton (food writing 2004)
I just got back from some shopping in the city, and I’m outraged. It’s the height of the strawberry season in Quebec, and at a certain Westmount grocer’s, I see only California strawberries! And summer squash from Peru, and all these other overly packaged, all too pristine and perfect fruit and veg in the place of the abundant local crop. How do they get away with it? Its not like this is an isolated case either; mass produced imports are everywhere, while the higher quality, local produce requires hunting down, trips across town. It would appear that this is what the consumer wants, which I can hardly imagine. Especially that its not just a matter of principle, its about taste and freshness. Produce at its peak from a neighboring farm is bound to taste better than strains bred for sturdiness picked too early, shipped thousands of miles by truck to be shot with ethylene gas to ripen at the warehouse beore being shipped to stores. I see the fields and stalls in the country, I know what’s in season, what’s out, what’s not. But obviously, the average city dweller doesn’t, or doesn’t care, and certainly isn’t encouraged to inquire. He probably trusts that his vendor is providing him with what is best, and he’s been duped.
The state of our food supply is on my mind a lot lately as I become increasingly close to farmers, and pay more attention to what’s on store shelves and in people’s baskets. I now realize how ignorant I was too about where my food came from or how it was produced before I went to work as chef in the country, met the likes of Anne Desjardins, and actually saw the crops growing, met the farmers and listened to their stories. Looking back, it strikes me as screwed up that even a plugged in chef like me could be in the dark about so many things. What’s Mr. Joe Blow who doesn’t spend all day thinking about food supposed to do, he can hardly to to blame. There’s this big machine of a backwards system that controls what we eat, and wants to keep it that way too. The clout of big agri-business, the fact that the big guys are heavily subsidized, coupled with the difficulties of setting up networks for a different distribution for such a short growing season make it hard for the artisans to compete. Who would have thought that there was so much fraud and scandal in the world of fruits and vegetables? I’ve even encountered imports being sold as local at the market, where I guess some people do care...
The fact is is that there is an abundance of quality local produce that doesn’t make it to the shelves of our superstores or vegetable perveyors because they aren’t willing to pay the price, or make the efforts involved in dealing with the little guys, preferring to buy cheaper or easier industrial imports. Until people start putting more pressure on their grocers by not buying this stuff, or making special requests, things won’t change fast enough to save our small local farmer.
There has been some progress, if you consider the promotion of local foodstuffs and artisans on top restaurant menus, the popularity of the farmers’ markets, the growing size of organic sections in the supermarkets, the rise in interest in food culture in general. Given our agricultural history, and cultural tradition of eating well, you’d think it would be more important in our collective conscience. There is some food ethics activism stirring, but it has yet to come mainstream. If the people who can afford to pay a little extra for better food aren’t doing it, then we have along way to go to make it affordable for everyone. Chefs like Anne Desjardins and Normand Laprise made a grass roots start 20 years ago in their support of local farmers, in parallel with organizations like Equiterre who now supply many city dwellers with farm baskets. They were promised a hopeful future, but the fact is that we haven’t come all that far, and those that are still around are still struggling.
All because most of us are too busy to care, because we’re so influenced by convenience and packaging and corporate advertising, or because we feel too squeezed financially to explore what is perceived to be a much more expensive way of eating. (In fact we spend less than we ever did on food and half as much of our income as European countries, we just spend more on Ipods or something). In the city, its so easy to be oblivious to the hows and whys of the farm, the cause and effect of the weather, what practices are sound or not, who is doing what right, who is not. However, we have to ask these questions so that we can make intelligent choices for our own pleasure and health, but also to support those producers in our backyard who toil with their hearts and good sense to produce quality over those that have no regard for anything but the bottom line. We would be getting much more bang for our buck, real flavor, and heirloom varieties that wouldn’t survive the long haul of transport, all while supporting the local economy. We consumers have the power to choose, and can make a difference with our dollar.
Coming out of the closet
I’m a chef and yes, a real girl
by Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2004)
It took me 10 years to consolidate the two. In an interview recently, I realized this, that I had been in denial, repressing my female self the whole time I was focused on my career as a chef.
Not that I was ever a girly girl by any means. In fact, I preferred water guns to dolls as a child, and always liked rough and tumble play. Playing tough, swearing profusely, flexing my muscles, and competition have always been up my alley. So, I took to the restaurant world quite well, and naturally set out to be one of the boys.
I unconsciously decided that this would be the best way to deal with this macho world. I would avoid bringing attention to the fact that I was a girl, while proving myself and earning their respect. I instinctively knew that I would have to work harder, not slip up or get emotional, not give them anything to hold against me, no fodder for tasteless jokes. I learnt that the safest, surest way to survive as a woman was to ignore the nonsense, the derrogatory, crude remarks, and be the bigger man. I would do longer hours, be as tough or tougher than them, take on extra tasks, take iniative, and lead the way. I read, read, read so as to know more than them, to have some kind of leverage, to gently and firmly take my place. I would bring in new ideas and ways of doing things, but always presented in such a way that shortly after, they might even think it was their own idea. I had to be strong, without threatening their masculinity. I would lug that sack of potatoes down a flight of stairs, fling pans across the room, and swear like a trucker. It was fun for a while, but happily, I slowly grew up, became comfortable and mellowed.
Now, I have the confidence and knowledge to freely be myself, a woman with all my particular strengths and weaknesses. And I also clearly see what qualities and positive dynamic women bring to the professional kitchen.
I know more than anyone that one cannot generalize too much along gender lines, that it is the individual that counts. However, I feel comfortable in saying that these qualities that are typically seen as feminine qualities, are indeed particularly suited to a professional kitchen.... Meticulousness, Organization, Cleanliness, A natural inclination for care-giving, the desire to please, Communication skills, Good common sense, Patience, Creativity, Aesthetic sense, Resilience...
All these attributes aside, the thing is... women are generally complex, even complicated, and this is how they can wreak havoc in a kitchen. I would have resented hearing a male chef say this years back, but my experience has backed up what the boys had been saying all along. Even Anne told me that she was looking for a male when she hired me, mostly to please her male sous-chefs who had had it up to there with whiney chicks. Thankfully, she didn’t follow through, as I know I never would either. Because we all secretly know that when the right woman is in her element, she rules... When it doesn’t work, it goes like this...
For women, often, their personal and emotional lives are of prime importance and take up a lot of space, so they have a harder time not bringing their baggage to work. They ask for more time off, call in sick more often. They are often more sensitive, take things more personally, and demand more fairness and logic in the way things work. Unfortunately, as it is in professional kitchens, fairness and logic are not always a priority, at least not in the moment. Girls often find the high pressure and brutal atmosphere hard on the morale, and always want to talk things out. Sometimes, that’s a necessary thing for the social health of the kitchen dynamic if it’s done at the end of the shift. Sometimes things need to be sorted out if you’re going to go through it all over again the next day. But sometimes, it’s just a pain in the ass. I kind of like the sport-like spirit of whatever happens in the rush stays in the rush, you have a drink together at the end of the night, and wash away all the troubles, without having to hash everything out. Afterall, at the end of the night, everyone is exhausted and its over, no hard feelings, ok?
I remember a couple of very complicated women in my brigade who never fit in, and wore me out with their constant haggling and need to talk every detail out every night. I put in so much energy to make it work to no avail; it never ended. I then went through a phase when I half joked about not hiring any more women (or anglos for that matter). Its true that some women are not cut out for the work; I don’t see anything wrong with saying that. It’s because they don’t really want it, which is fine, and many actually do opt out after a few years. But when the right woman does come along who is passionate, tough and talented, she is dynamite. Oh ya, I already said that.
The main reason there aren’t more women in high ranking chef positions is that they choose not to, not from a lack of skill or character, but because it doesn’t correspond to their life goals. The nature of the work with the long hours, working weekends and holidays, just doesn’t jive with an active social life. The hard physical work, the macho atmosphere, the hot, sticky, dirty environment, the hierarchial structure, are all things that don’t appeal to alot of women. Forget about what the heat and grease and water do to your skin and nails, what always wearing a hat does to your hair. And you don’t get to dress up every day in the latest fashions. My girlfriends always look at me in pity for those reasons. They wouldn’t be caught dead with hands that look like mine.
All the superficial stuff aside; most of all, women in the industry find it difficult to coordinate a chef’s job with kids and family. By the time a woman works her way up the ladder, gathering enough experience to get that executive chef job, her biological clock is ticking, and she chooses to shift to a morning pastry position, or catering or teaching, forgoing the crazy, workaholic life of a chef in exchange for a balanced family life.
That’s why there aren’t more top women chefs. They don’t want the job. Many have what it takes no doubt. The doors are open for those who want it, they just have to really want it.
The climate is changing though. I’ve seen huge change in my 10 years. And as more and more women enter professional kitchens, the less macho the atmosphere will be, the more fair and civil operations will be, and the less threatening it will be for other women who don’t necessarily want to play the boy.
All in all, I believe there are only good things ahead for girls and boys and the professional kitchen. Girly boys, and boyish girls, together, allowed to be the individuals they are, and the dedicated chefs they are, are already forging a new dynamic, as modern cuisine is rising to new heights.
Crazy: Losing touch with reality while slaving away at the stove
Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2004)
The job of a chef is gaining glamour and public interest, but there is more than meets the eye. In fact, the life of a professional cook is an all encompassing, challenging, demanding, highly satisfying, yet ultimately disorienting job.
The restaurant kitchen is a peculiar place. There are strange rules, strict hierarchy and discipline, but you find the childishness of a schoolyard, the superstitions of a cult. Cooks face absolute deadlines less flexible than an editor’s. The precision of a technician is required inorder to survive. The atmosphere can have the intensity of an operating room. But instead of doctors, you find the characters from a circus. Not unlike a circus or some theatrical production, the curtain opens, and the cooks do their kitchen dance, people are stepping over eachother in a mad fury, rushing to and fro, flipping, plating, while the maestro waves his wand or shouts obscenities. With the synchonicity and timing of a classical piece, and the improvisation of good jazz, they play their notes, eager to please. On most nights, they need the stamina of a marathon runner, and the tolerence for heat of a cement mixer on a hot roof.
They sniff and taste all day long, nurture their plants, their produce and the curing hams, they nitpick over a myriad of details in the preparation and presentation of the dishes. It’s all about the food, and as they are so in tune with their meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, food takes on a distorted importance. Their perspective can’t help but be skewed. They spend way too much money on food, and develop strong opinions about food. How could someone eat veal with ketchup? A filet well-done, blasphemy! How could someone not like butter? Or be allergic to carrots? How could someone not understand that taking the mushrooms out of a dish wrecks the whole balance?
The cook functions in a world of heightened senses due to the emphasis on taste, touch and smell, as well as the constant heat, pressure and confined space of a kitchen. There are rarely windows in a restaurant kitchen, most are closed off from the dining room. This all makes for an environment where certain behaviors that would seem barbaric in the real world become acceptable, even normal. Like swearing profusely, telling off color jokes, engaging in sudden emotional outbursts and playing juvenile tricks on one another. They like to bitch, even if they love their jobs. They thrive on adrenalin, are good at holding their bladders for extended periods of time, and frequently suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. They eat at obscene hours, and smoke and drink alot. They stay up late. They do more cooking and eating and partying, as well as their laundry and shopping on Sundays and Mondays. They never spend nights, weekends or holidays with their family or friends, so they live with a lot of guilt. Which makes them smoke and drink more.
In such a fast paced, severe, chaotic, physical yet artistic world with so many variables and unpredictable customers, and a new show to put on everyday, its no wonder chefs are crazy. Like the chicken and the egg, we aren’t sure which comes first the crazy or the chef, but in this surreal world, there is no doubt that if a fully engaged cook isn’t crazy to begin with, he certainly will be sooner or later.
Food as foreplay
Some people say food is like sex. Clever advertisers use sex to sell food, and use food to allude to sex or to make some product sexy. They know that our lower brain activity can get muddled, and influence us greatly. In our sensual lives, food and sex are bound to work in parallel, even get intertwined. Without even getting kinky, one can enhance the other, and even in the most conservative lives, one can certainly lead to the other.
I say keep the crumbs out of the bed, but I’ve also been accused of being a prude. Nonetheless, listening to a girlfriend talk about the importance of foreplay one day over drinks, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how I relish the anticipation and preparation leading up to any meal, even if its just a ham and butter sandwich, mmm.
Do I find the build-up to a fine meal, be it in the labor of cooking, or getting ready for a night out, as good as the final result? Maybe not, but it certainly plays a big role in my overall enjoyment of the event, like foreplay is to a sexual tryst. Sex is that much more satisfying, the climax that much more intense, if there is a substantial amount of mental and physical build-up, teasing and imagery. Of course, this analogy only applies to people who take as deep a pleasure in food and cooking as I do.
I am a complete foodie, and so can sit down to a meal, and fully appreciate it on its own. If circumstances allow, I eat intently, deriving the maximum amount of pleasure by picking it apart, thinking about it, savoring every taste, sometimes for hours afterward. However, when I’m on the giving end as opposed to the receiving end, I invariably get more out of the process itself.
In fact, when it comes to the preparatory work, I relish multi-step, complex tasks. I plan my time, make sure I’m very organized, so as to keep the pressure off and keep it fun. I don’t want it to feel like work, because then it would never feel like foreplay. A part of the plan is leaving a little leeway, some room for spontaneity.
It begins with planning the menu, tapping into my inspirations of the moment, flipping through books, rehashing old hits and misses, thinking about the possibilities. Then comes the list making, setting the game plan, which I really get off on. Trips to the market follow, which offer up a feast for the eyes, a lot of touching and smelling, some tasting of the produce, and I select the most beautiful ingredients that stir me. I might change things on a whim if so inspired inorder to take advantage of a seasonal ingredient or a coup de coeur.
When the cooking begins, a new stage of titillation or therapy ensues. I put on the soothing sound of CBC talk radio, some soulful opera, or some Bran Van, depending on my mood and probably, my date. I go through the process of chopping, sweating, grinding, simmering, with the accompanying scents, sounds and caresses. As the components of the meal take shape, the tastes evolve into what I had imagined, and things get checked off my list, I feel better and better. Once the Mise en Place is done, short of a few finishing touches, I clean the kitchen and pour myself a glass of wine. I am utterly content, albeit feeling a tingle of anxiety. I’m excited for the night to unfold, for my guest(s) to sit down; I’m almost on the verge.
Soon after, the tension and pleasure peaks as my guest(s) are served, and everyone digs in with big smiles. As their enjoyment mounts, mine plateaus, and I bask in the warm glow of friends nourished and tickled pink, enveloped in the warm embrace of laughter and good vibes for the rest of the night.
When on the receiving end, as in the case of a night out on the town for a restaurant meal, the very different preliminary process also lends much stimulation, enhancing the whole evening. I love to be the one choosing the restaurant because this just adds to my foreplay, as I go over my ever present mental list of restaurants I love or want to try, peruse the guides and menus, discuss it with friends.
Once the reservation has been secured, I start thinking about where we’re going, and how it will be. I will have it in the back of my mind all week, looking forward to it, up until the moment I’m getting dressed in my resto attire (tasteful, with plenty of room around the girth). I’m out the door with a spring in my step.
A pleasant way to extend the build-up and further whet the appetite is a lovely apéritif, or two. I particularly enjoy a glass of Champagne, with its seductive, lively flavors, its tickling bubbles. At this point, the anticipation really starts to build, as the night officially gets under way. I feel like I’m in the lobby before a show, anxious, excited, hungry for a good time and ready to let go, escape.
The curtain rises. The reading of the menu is the ultimate teaser, every item tantalizing me as I let myself be enamored, repelled or just curious...Yes, no, maybe, yes... And I always have to comment. This can be torture for my companion if he isn’t as food obsessed and wanting to play the same game.
As I wrap my head around the offerings, and preconceptions whirl about my head, a good idea of the delights to follow take shape. I let myself be torn here and there by the suggestion of this and that, and I painstakingly make my selections. These are the previews, which I’ve always liked at the theatre too.
Now, I’m primed, and ready for the giddy, sensual ride ahead. A winning appetizer or two, a wine pairing on the mark, and I’m won over.... a session of multiple orgasims is in motion.
Good food and wine in good company can be as good as sex when someone else is cooking. If I’m cooking, I happily settle for the foreplay, and hope my guest(s) get the orgasms.
Sex or not, sharing good food with a hot date or even good friends feels like one long, warm, loving embrace on either end.
I wrote this five years or so ago, and for whatever reason, I now find this funny, not even me. I don’t know if its that I’m getting older or what, but although I still find that wining and dining can be very sexy, I now find too much tra-lala and endless tasting menus tiring, unless I’m really in the mood. Give me fresh tomatoes, sea salt and olive oil, some crusty bread and cheese. No prep, no fan-fare, just pure and simple, equally satisfying and sensuous. Like a good quickie.
As a young girl, I wanted to do something with my life that made a difference, that was important and noble in some way. I’m from a family of missionaries and frugal do-gooders, so as a chef, I have always been racked with guilt, a feeling that maybe feeding rare delicacies to the rich might not qualify. I carried around the following quote for years to help me keep perspective ( “There is no sauce in the world like hunger”).
Trust me, I lost perspective at times. Working your way up the professional food chain requires endless hours of superfluous tasks, turning vegetables into pretty shapes, trussing miniature rabbit racks, witnessing food going to waste. That’s the thing, if you’re good and ambitious, then you push the limits, strive to advance, and that’s where you end up in the gastronomic world. Successful, but almost ridiculous, contemplating that extra layer of flavor or texture to bring an already fancy composition over the top, elaborating foie gras or sweetbreads ten ways. Is that sooo wrong? And how about killing dozens of lobsters a day? That couldn’t be so good for my karma either. Even if I was loving it, I couldn’t help but think about these things.
Ok, so, I didn’t go off to work in soup kitchens or do missionary work in Africa. I came to terms with the relevance of what I do and my place in society. There is no doubt that I have found my calling in fancy pants cooking, and if I try to keep it real, I’ll be Ok, I think . I do believe that all cooks play an important role in the community, especially today. However, there is also no doubt that eating well and treating food as art or a hobby as people in my circles do, is a luxury few can afford.
I figure if we foodies are going to spend so much time thinking and talking about food, the least we can morally do is acknowledge the privelage of it by incorporating some food ethics into the discussion and our daily lives. By bringing abit of smarts to the table, the food only tastes better anyway.
I hate party poopers, but I also hate indifference and hippocracy. Its just not right to be in a position to do something and not, even if its just a little here and there.
If we use our dining out dollar and gossip to promote the right products and people, not only are we assuring a selection of higher quality, healthier and safer food, we are investing in our community, the environment, and the future at the same time. Its a win-win situation. Buying locally and supporting sustainable farming and fishing, as well as choosing organic, eco-friendly and fair trade food only makes sense, be it for freshness and taste or for health reasons, or for the social and environmental impact. And there’s a little less guilt involved knowing we are doing good as we indulge in our foodie activities.
Life is what happens at the table
Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
Its been said that “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”, or “Life is what happens when you’re having kids” .... I say that life happens when you’re at the dinner table. It seems that the most important things in my life have transpired at the table. Certainly, all the fun times have been. And at the very least, any significant event was linked to a meal somehow, in that it was before, during or after dinner, and was definately discussed over dinner at some point. If not, then maybe that’s why I don’t remember it...
Even those people less food obsessed than I, conduct much of their business and social activity at the table. Most people mark an occasion with some kind of festive get-together involving food, be it brunch, a barbeque, dinner in or out. Like it or not, we all must nourish ourselves at regular intervals on a daily basis. So if we make the most of it, we’re bound to spend a large chunk of our waking hours at the dining table. Statistics say we spend a third of our time, or twenty-five odd years sleeping, ten years in our cars and another ten in front of the TV. We spend a much larger percentage of our quality time at the table, and even more preparing for or winding down from it.
Meals punctuate our days. For me, spit-roasted duck or a seasonal treat like corn on the cob would be definate exclamation marks. Cookies and milk together make a period, pea foam a question mark, and salad makes me think comma. Ok, so the pages of my life story are heavy on punctuation and littered with exclamation marks. But we need punctuation, run on sentences drive everyone nuts. Meals are valuable as punctuation, breaking up our days. I find the start and finish are especially important, with breakfast waking me up and slowly getting me into gear, and a late dinner or midnight snack washes away the day’s stress and eases me into bed. My day would be incomplete without my capitol “C” for coffee and my capitol “B” for banana, and “G” for grains in the form of an oatmeal muffin, buttery croissant, or bowl of cereal. Lunch and dinner are important checkpoints too, providing necessary sustenence, refocusing, relaxation, and social interplay.
However, meals are much more than markers, more crucial than brackets or hyphens in a day’s prose. Alone, they contribute much of the substance and script. The meal itself can be the main event, when the food is exceptionally tasty and satisfying, the company and ambiance exquisite. In such instances of blissful sensory overload, it can be difficult to think about much else, a moving chapter you don’t want to end.
At the same time, the actual meal can simply be the context or backdrop, filling in the gaps and embellishing real life moments. Either way, the meal is central to good living, either important as the main show or as the set to life’s theatre.
I could easily break down my life into a calender of meals with their associated moments and memories. At an early age, I discovered that I could take care of myself and immeasurably improve my life by cooking, first making triple-decker sandwiches, and once allowed at the stove, creating my first dish of sautéed mushrooms with soy sauce and vinegar. I quickly realized that life was going to be about making hard choices, when I would spend my entire weekly allowance on a small poutine at the local casse-croûte and be left with an empty piggy bank. I decided then that budgeting stunk.
I learnt the importance of making curfew as a teenager over dill pickles and cheddar cheese at Rachel’s. I learnt about sharing around a table of ten kids and a turkey with only one wishbone, and practiced sharing over and over again on Friday pizza nights. Over boiled beef and overcooked vegetables at the same dinner table, I learnt how to keep quiet when I had nothing nice to say, and to be thankful for food, shelter and family.
I observed countless other families around the dinner table, got a taste of other backgrounds and ways of thinking. I tasted Vietnamese stews, ratatouille, stragonoff, roast beef, crétons, souvlaki and fattouche salad, all so exotic at the time. I compared these families and their food to my own, and finally understood that all in all, no scenario was better, just different, all with their good points and bad.
I went out for my first fancy date at la Mère Michel, where I had dry Chicken Cordon Bleu and was treated poorly by the snobby waitron. When I moved out, I embraced life away from home and the multicultural energy of Montreal over shish taouk, smoked meat and 10¢ chicken wings. I pulled all-nighters studying, eating Felix and Norton cookies and sipping Van Houtte coffee. I learnt that there were better bargains out there if you looked, celebrating my frugality with curry (just the sauce) and nan bread at the Faubourg, or falafel and foccacia at Euro-deli. I found a favorite restaurant to splurge at in reward for spells of hard studying in a little BYOB where I alternated between Pasta Carbonara, Romanoff and Alfredo, always with an antipasto to start, and a salad to finish. I thought I was so sophisticated, being a dépanneur wine expert and all. In any case, I did learn that there is something to be said for keeping secrets because popularity soon took my little spot down.
Around the age of twenty, I got my first taste of real life pressures, and learnt how to cope with failure, finding temporary solace in steaming bowls of Tonkinese soup. Since then, I’ve drowned my sorrows and soothed my soul with Tonkinese soup many times over at Vietnamese restaurants around town.
Spending a summer working at a restaurant and wine-bar in London, England, I discovered scones and clotted cream, spotted the first signs of “fusion cuisine” and was alerted to the finer things in life like good wine, and the notion that the world could be my oyster. I remember feeling grown up and at peace for the first time, dining alone eating raw milk cheese with a glass of Jura wine in a Covent Garden wine bar.
I rediscovered Montreal and life here, learning not to take things for granted, to hold on to what I had over cheese fondue, Miki’s favorite. I had bavette/frites at La Cabane with several guys, and finally walked out on the latest guy and La Cabane for good, despite the fries, marking the dawning of my realization that I had commitment issues. I fell in love with Bob over Italian food at Enios. I fell in love with Italian food at Il Cortile where I tasted Reggiano for the first time (an epiphany!), and fell in love with Bob again and again over Italian food at DaVinci’s and Il Sole on St-Laurent. I fell out of love with Bob over fish tacos in Hawaii. I flirted with the idea of leaving him over mussels and fries with Joe Blow, I don’t remember his name now. I remember breaking down and discussing it with a friend over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon at Benedicts. Over sushi at Koji Kaisen with an eager suitor, I decided to work on saving my relationship. I contemplated moving to Vancouver over the best pot of steaming mussels (lemon and black pepper) on a dreary, rainy day at some bistro on False Creek. But I decided that Montreal was absolutely my home over bagels and lox for breakfast while people watching on the Plateau a few days later.
It was confirmed that I had expensive taste when I fell in love with caviar at first bite at Troika with Benôit. Also at Troika, I tasted the best steak tartare made tableside, and was exposed for the first time to catty women who were mean to me. I learnt the importance of table manners, and how it pays to be one’s self in the end, however intimidated and out of place I may feel. I’ve had many heartfelt conversations indulging in pure comfort food at the Rôtisserie Italienne eating fettucine gigi, suppli and the simplest, most satisfying salad, my Saturday night ritual for years in the 90’s. I finally left Bob after a painful night of sobbing into a bowl of noodles. I think it was Pad Thai, he was watching Jeopardy; I don’t really remember the noodles.
I first really met Barb over Susi Q shrimp at the Tavern. I first really met Ange over firecracker shrimp at La Louisiane. I’ve had numerous giddy nights with friends over fire-cracker shrimp at La Louisiane, while they ate their favorites: Shrimp Magnolia, blackened ribsteak, or the Fedellini Santa Fe..... I remember celebrating summer, having found the wonderful circle of friends I still have, one night at Mediterraneo when seared tuna Asian-style was the rage. That summer, I explored my raw side, eating sushi all over town, at all times of day. I did a lot of living, celebrating all there was to celebrate in my single 20-something youth, finishing many a night with the best late night snack of all – poutine – from Ashton’s, Angela’s, Moe’s or Picasso’s. I grew as a cook, and settled into life as an adult with a career, testing out the classics and my creations on my boyfriend and friends, over many less than perfect, but great meals that were rarely served before 10pm. Thank God for the wine.
I turned 30 to multiple courses cooked by friends, featuring oysters, duck soup, spinach and bacon salad, and roast pork, what a treat.....that was a party to remember on so many levels. My girlfriend Barb turned 30 the night I discovered the Ouzerie, and enjoyed great mussels, sausage and saganaki. More Greek food made another girlfriend Heidi Ho’s 30th memorable at Mythos, where the Taverna spirit reigned, and the tsaziki was solid. My youngest girlfriend, Ange, turned 30 this year, and we celebrated at Globe by sharing a baby leg of lamb for two (Kyle and I) smothered in morels and asparagus, after some pickled herring, octopus salad, fresh scampi and delicious proscuitto-melon bites.
I had my first dinner with Jon at L’ Eau à la Bouche, I had salad and trout and caviar, and he had foie gras and lamb. Dave was there, we had loads of laughs, the food was great, the service too, I loved the Québec goat cheese and sherry, I fell in love. Our friendship grew over tasting menus at the Union Square and Picholine in NYC, and at Toqué, La Biche au Bois, and Globe. I taught him how to make red wine sauce, he showed me how to make chicken soup with matzo balls. We made ratatouille and braised veal together, tested out sorbet recipes. I sampled other restaurants, and other dates, learning about life and myself while nibbling on soba noodles at Ginger, anchovy laced tartare at Paris Buerre, pappadam topped anything at Java U. I had foie gras and lentil soup at les Caprices de Nicolas and went back to Jon. I knew I had to break away again after dinner at L’Initiale, where I had guinea hen with too many garnishes and he had duck three ways, his suit smelled, we were the only ones in the restaurant. I had my “last dinner” with Jon at Cube, I had duck, he had veal, all so elegant, nothing was hot, it was fun anyway. I realized I really loved Jon over Med Spagetti at the Tavern. We got back together again over Comte cheese, smoked duck breast, the ripest honeydew, roasted almonds and arugula salad.
Heidi got married. We had croque-monsieurs and Champagne at Opus beforehand when too nervous to eat anything else, and then five courses of wedding food that night, featuring surprisingly decent banquet chicken. On our honeymoon (the bridesmaids’), we had a beautiful ten-course meal at Lumière, where we were seduced by the Périgord truffle, and Barb refused to let me call our squab pigeon.
I’ve often let my stress dissipate after crazy nights in the kitchen with comforting, stimulating, classic French fare at L’Express: rémoulade, Steak tartare, duck confit, ravioli.... yum. I bonded with new work friends and nature up north many nights over the best take-out pizza, a late night campfire and fabulous wine, sometimes until sunrise. I caught a glipse of Dominique’s soft side (my chef de cuisine) because of buckwheat crêpes, jambonneau and apple cider. I spied into the souls of Luc, Maddalena and Manu with their favorite staff meals. Over many staff meals, I’ve swapped stories and learnt a little more about cooking and people in general, from worlds different than my own, be they off in the Québec countryside, in France or in Italy.
I hashed out my thirty something female stress, bonded with girlfriends, as we shared our biggest fears, deepest secrets and darkest moments over buckets of tears and BBQ chicken, corn and grilled mushroom salad, sausage and piperade.
I’ve learnt the value of the gift of giving while cooking many meals for family and friends, sharing weddings and birthdays, or just another Friday night. I’ve learnt the importance of community in my life through food. Learning and accepting my place in society settled me. Knowing that by being a cook, I could give back and participate in being a part of people’s everyday meals, I was making their lives slightly better. Like my dry cleaner or cordonnier, or my mother does for me. I saw the importance of a meal to people, no matter how mundane, that I played a part, and I valued that.
I could go on and on and on. So many meals, so many moments. My photo albums may as well consist of menus. Looking back, I’m thankful for the rich life I’ve had. It just happens to be so intrinsically linked to food and wine, and time at the table. Maybe the meals give me a framework within which to store life’s memories, earmarking them for easy retrieval. Perhaps my hyperactive, well-conditioned taste memory helps me to hold on to other details. The beauties of the meals add layers of depth to my experiences, anchoring the memories.
Whether food is as major a player in other people’s lives or not, it certainly has some relevance, conscious or not. In any case, time at the table is inarguably good for the spirit. Realizing that brings us full circle, reminding us of our roots, what’s really important. Regardless of how far up the food chain we are or how technologically advanced we are, no matter how big our brain gets, we aren’t so different from the four-legged animals in that life is really all about meal time. We just have the luxury to choose it, and are better for it. So pull up a chair, raise your glass with me.... and cherish time at the table, this is life at its best... Cheers!
Nancy Hinton, Ste-Adèle, 2004 (edited 2006)
This term (molecular gastronomy) makes me laugh. Of course, gastronomy and cookery are molecular, that’s nothing new. What’s new is that we’re beginning to understand what’s going on in the stockpot on a molecular level, we now have the tools. Cooking is now deemed legitimate subject matter for scientists to study, there are a bunch of curious cooks, and so the field is booming.
Its only natural that we get excited. Finally, technology has caught up with us and our cooking. After more than a hundred years of the cooking profession as we know it, we are finally learning exactly how egg yolks emulsify to make mayonnaise. So, now we find out that we don’t actually need 3 yolks per cup of oil, we could even use one, or even none at all, if we coax enough of the protein from the white, or help it out with some gelatin. So, old myths are being broken, golden rules are being scrutinized, reinforced or qualified. New techniques and approaches are being developed across the board.
Being from a scientific background, I was naturally immediately drawn to the science of cooking. For me, it first of all provided a sound transition into what I perceived to be a flaky world. In my first week of culinary school, my teacher gave me the Harold McGee book (On Food and Cooking) and I was enchanted. You mean, there is THIS much to cooking, WOW! I could have my science and eat it too. More importantly, the scents and feel of the kitchen subsequently took over, the beauty of the classics seduced me, and I never looked back.
Once I had learned the traditional basics, the science provided another level of interest and meaning. I soon realized that although not of primary importance, any scientific understanding gave me more power as a cook. I could make bridges, deduce things without having to repeat them 100 times, and I could break the rules if I knew what was going on, what each step in a recipe stood for.
What’s a Chantilly? Fat and liquid whipped with air, with some natural stabilizers, protein. So, take any fat, any liquid, find the right proportion and whip air into it. Help it out with some protein if there isn’t any naturally present. You can make chocolate chantilly without cream, use chocolate as the fat, orange juice as the liquid, and voilà.
What’s mayo? An emulsion of liquid and oil, held into place with protein. So take garlic and oil (the original aioli), there is water and protein in the garlic, and then you have the oil, voilà. Ok, so you may have to whip harder if a good emusifier like egg yolk isn’t present, but still.
What’s mousse? Basically, a cooked mayo-like emulsion. Water, protein, oil, and heat. So take duck stock as the liquid, foie gras fat as the oil, gelatin as the protein, and cook it. Voilà, a duck mousse without cream or eggs. Is it better? That’s not the point now.
Why are we taught that there are four tastes (salt, sweet, sour, bitter), or five, if you’re from Japan (+umami), and what about that tongue map (sweet in front, sour on the sides, bitter in the back etc.) when this is scientifically proven to be inaccurate? Like now we know there are fifty odd planets, but we still teach our kids that there are 8 or 9. Its easier to oversimplify, but its hard to rationalize. We do want to know these things, especially if its our profession.
So, even if I don’t want to cook an egg for 100 hours, its essential that I know that its all about temperature and not time, that as long as I keep the temperature below 64 degrees, my egg will be soft no matter how long I cook it. I know that there are several proteins that coagulate at different temperatures, and as they do when I raise the temperature, the egg gets firmer. Out the window go all rules about cooking eggs, I understand what’s going on. I can do what I want with it.
What’s meat? In superficial terms, it is water in a network of fibers. So, now we can make new objects that are very meat-like with any liquid and suspended protein fibres. Things we know as liquids can be transformed into solids, and vice versa. This opens many doors for a crazy cook if you want to go down that road.
Without going out to invent new things, what science brings most to the kitchen is a basic understanding of the movements we’ve been doing for years, and the equipment we use. I appreciate knowing that my stovetop element loses 80% heat, which makes it very inefficient as a heat source, but funny enough, hundreds of years later, we’re still using the same kind of set-up. There is obviously room for much progress in terms of our heating implements. Not many other industries lag so far behind in modern times. I’m all of a sudden open to new heating devices. But I don’t as badly need a bicycle pump for my meringue, not that I’m against it either.
You see, all this information is intoxicating. The more I got into into it when I was doing that, the further I delved, the more cocky I got, and the less convinced I became that it was helping my cooking. It was making me too cerebral, separating me from my senses and from tradition.
When I was forced to closely examine my new, very technical concoction that only .1% of the dining public would appreciate on a purely sensory level, it was all clear to me. “Ya, that sure is clever, Nancy, but is it yummy? Is it better than the classic?” Anne would always ask me. I couldn’t help but accept that, no, perhaps, it wasn’t. And without explaining how it was revolutionary technique-wise, it had no merit. I had stretched my brain, it was a great exercise for me, but ultimately, the customer didn’t need this.
I value learning and progress, but I have learnt that novelty for the sake of novelty is cheap. Ferran Adria is truly a genius, but not the people who copy him to be trendy. I admire him, but in my heart and soul, I just don’t want to do that kind of cooking anyway. The scientist in me has been stomped out by the artist and the hedonist, but nonetheless, it has left me changed.
What I learnt has served me. It has reinforced my skills, my instincts, my eye. It has taught me that although there is a reason behind most rules that can be emperically explained, like in the outside world, there is very little black and white once you introduce humans. So theory does not always translate into reality in the kitchen, unlike in a lab. No matter, we need to stay curious, to be able to question, to think outside the box inorder to keep evolving. And we also need to always respect history, because very little is REALLY new, you know.
Three years later.....
I just got back from a conference on Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This at the Science center. He is a true character, a brilliant spokesperson, clearly a scientist who loves food. Tonight, he spent more time defining molecular gastronomy than explaining it, and spoke more about love than science. I think people were generally disappointed.
Many came expecting formulas, the reader’s digest version of food and science, the molecular secret to a perfect sauce, something material to grasp on to. But he waxed philosophical, he was in big picture mode. It was more about the who, why, where, than the what and how. And I understand. He has been excitedly doing the science for years, detail, detail, detail. Now, he has taken a step back, is refocusing; he is more concerned with context, using all this science in a way that stays true to the soul of cooking.
At first, he just wanted cooks, and people in general, to get excited about the science behind what they were doing. Now that people are, and that they are equipped with the tools he brought to light, he wants to restrain, guide people. To make them understand the big picture, to think about how they are using it. Technology always seems to precede art and ethics, and then we play catch up.
When all this molecular gastronomy was all new to me, and I was young and in experimental mode, I didn’t care about the big picture too much. I wanted to learn it all, push the limits, act out all these cool new things. Once you’ve done that journey, you look back and want to qualify it, but move on. You take the best, the most useful of what you have learnt, and it will inform your experiences ever after, but you move to a new plane. That might lead you back to the basics, the essence, or even to the abstract, but always searching for truth, facts yes, but that connect to the soul, that make sense in your world.
I think that’s why Hervé kept insisting that science wasn’t cooking, that it was a tool, and that cooking is the technician’s realm, one step from the technologist, two steps from the scientist. The scientist’s goal is truth. The application is a different thing altogether. And then the sociological variables come into play, which is the cook’s business, not the scientist’s. An actual meal is a few more degrees of separation away, when you bring in the people cooking, the people eating, the ambiance, whether they are eating the same thing, or all different courses or not. In the real world of food and people, a whole bunch of physical and sociological variables come into play to complicate any scientific certainties that have been deduced.
The science of food and cooking has been Hervé This’ life for decades now, he is way ahead of us; he no longer wants to talk about the sucrose profile of carrot soup or egg white emulsions or creamless mousses; he wants to talk about stopping to smell the flowers, and the feeling that goes into a preparation. I think he was playing down all this molecular gastronomy thing because he sees that he has created a monster. I believe he does love food and people, and that he doesn’t want to denature cooking too much. He wants us to ask questions and use science, but to stay connected to the pure delight of making something delicious. It’s very “Like Water for Chocolate” in a way. A science dude turned spiritual. But any true scientist is indeed spiritual in a sense, because he is in tune with nature; he can’t help but acknowledge the effect of things that aren’t easily quantified, like anything “magical” or “god-like”, depending on who you are. In the world of cooking these things are “tour de main”, “ambiance”, or the love and integrity, the personal touch, that goes into a dish. Any honest observer knows that this is a big part of cooking, and of life.I thank him for tonight’s conference because to me, it was real; it reinforced what I feel and think about molecular gastronomy as far as I know it. And coming from the king, it was refreshing, because like they say in French, he just wasn’t selling his salad. It was a thinking, very human, scientist’s take on the field, where it’s at, and where it should go.
I wrote this piece ages ago, but for whatever reason, never published it. After a recent visit with Anne, and Jonathan back in my life quite regularly (saving my ass many a Saturday recently at the restaurant), I figured it was time to post this ‘tribute’ to them before it was too dated. Here's to Anne and my little squirt Jo, two remarkable people who will be in my heart always..
My Mentor and My Apprentice
Two extraordinary people
As much as I yearned for one early on, I don’t feel like I ever really had a mentor in the true sense of the word. But I did cross paths with some terrific people, and I cherry picked, gleaning tidbits here and there. Starting with chefs I crossed as a waitress, to my school teachers, namely M.Oliver, and chefs and co-workers, I hung off their every word and studied them. Early on, I kept my mouth shut (most of the time), I listened and I observed. I also took charge and tried to figure things out on my own. I read a ton of books and cooked at home like crazy, constantly taking on new projects and recipes, teaching myself. I really think I learnt more this way than from any other source. Of course, there is no catalyst like the pressure of a hot, busy kitchen full of egos and deadlines; so on the job training undoubtedly counted most. I never made it to France as a cook, but along my modest journey, there were key people at every twist and turn that taught me something important, marking me: Gilles, Philip and Eve, Christophe, Steve, Clinton and Issa, Dominique, Luc and Maddelena, Benjamin, Phil, Manu, and Anne of course.
Anne Desjardins was the closest thing I had to a mentor in my cooking career. When I started at L’Eau, I was already somewhat of an experienced cook with a style of my own, and opinions of my own. I had already created menus and managed etc., but I was definitely rough around the edges, and still am for that matter. But through my experience with Anne and l’Eau, I really grew and matured. It was the result of having a great platform, freedom and trust, and someone to impress, not to mention a good team to feed off. Anne was someone who was accomplished, whom I admired and respected, who could stimulate me and also bring me back to planet earth with a simple look or comment. She had been going for 20 odd years, she was smart, had impeccable taste and we shared a common sense of what good food was. There was a connection; I found it easy to relate to her, to understand what she wanted, we liked many of the same things. I didn’t have to compromise my own ways to carry out her agenda; au contraire, she elevated me. I could finish her thoughts, and she mine; brainstorming with her was invigorating. It was challenging and satisfying, surely because she was generous enough to let me participate, to allow me to be her muse. I never forget how lucky I was to benefit from all her hard work, in working under her name, to have the resources she had gathered, to operate in a bountiful system of regional cuisine she helped develop.
Along with others like Normand Laprise and Daniel Vezina, she was one of the pioneers of Quebec fine cuisine as we know it. In that sense, she was a mentor to many a Quebec cook indirectly, not just me. The New York Times once coined her Quebec ’s Julia Child, she has been awarded the honour of the Order of Quebec for her contribution to Quebec culture. The abundance of quality local products we have access to now is a direct result of their efforts to forge direct relationships with farmers and encourage local artisans. They were also the first wave of home-grown chefs to cook in a creative, proud and modern way, breaking from the tradition of French chefs cooking French classics using imported ingredients. Initially autodidactic, she opened her country bistro with modest aspirations, but was quickly propelled into the world of haute cuisine with her talent and drive. She went on to add the adjoining hotel, travelled to Europe on stages off season, and the accolades and awards came streaming in. L’Eau à la Bouche became one of the first Relais et Chateaux in Canada , and has been a Quebec dining destination since.
Anne is the true model of a passionate chef, a hard worker and an original thinker. She is strong and level headed, generous and fair, and involved in the community. She is curious and courageous, whimsical and creative, but utterly down to earth, and a lover of nature. She has a fine palette, but appreciates the simplest of things. It is the quality of the product, an artisanal perfectly aged cheese, a fresh piece of fish or a perfectly ripe tomato that makes her tick.
It is this appreciation of the product in general, the reverence of quality and freshness, that was her main gift to me. It made me change focus, realizing that the actual cooking and our skills were secondary. Since then, I have tended towards less manipulation, or at least not manipulation for the sake of being fancy or technical. Her pride and devotion towards Quebec regional ingredients is another thing that marked me. Inspired by Alice Waters and co., I was drawn to L’Eau and Anne for that very reason. But once I was actually there, seeing where my food came from, dealing with the farmers, listening to their stories and tasting all this stuff, marvelling at the local harvest of baby vegetables and heirloom varieties, the wild greens and mushrooms, the revelation of it all swept me to a new place as a cook. It went beyond idealism, it slowly became my religion. At first, it was all about freshness - local meant fresh, a small production meant quality control. Soon after though, it came to make so much more sense to me on so many levels. For the sense of community and civic pride, for traceability, for the environment, for a smaller footprint; I was off on this vein in a sprint, it was the only way I wanted to cook ever again.
As you can see, I highly admire and respect Anne for who she is, for what she has done, and am grateful for my time with her at l’Eau. Anne has become even more than a mentor to me, I consider her a friend, a sister and a cohort. I am quite sure that she will hate all this tribute-like saccharine discourse, but what the hell, I wanted you to know. I hope you liked meeting Anne if you don’t already know her, and I raise my glass to her.
You can see Anne on her weekly Tv clip on Par dessus le Marché on TVA, also this summer on Pour le Plaisir on Radio Canada TV, or visit the restaurant hotel spa, her legacy which she now shares with her son Manu who leads the brigade at the stoves.. http://www.leaualabouche.com/
My apprentice, Jonathan Pelletier, is another story. He wasn’t necessarily looking for a mentor when we met, but he got one. I call him Little Squirt or P’tit cul, well because he is both. He is a 22 year old with blue hair. He was 17 when he started at l’Eau, a punk fresh out of school from small town Québec. He had never tasted anything exotic, no fresh herbs besides parsley, no spice or wild mushrooms or foie gras, nor most fish and seafood, not even pork tenderloin (and his father was a pig farmer). I had a true virgin here. Judging from his textbook knowledge, I don’t think he attended too many of his classes either. Obviously though, his teacher had seen something in him to have sent him to l’Eau.
He was indeed very bright and quick, and despite his lack of experience, he impressed me from the get go. Six months in, he had already moved to hot. But by then, he was already getting comfortable, and starting to get cocky. From that moment on, it was a bittersweet struggle.
He was sharp, talented and could do just about anything, but you had to give him the occasional kick in the butt. I constantly gave him a hard time, as well pats on the back and pep talks. I would tell him to push himself to be the best he could for himself, not for the guys, not for money, not for me. I wanted him to go home to read books and cook some more. I could only imagine what kind of a career he could have starting at such a tender age.
I continued to invest loads of energy into whipping him into shape. He continued to please and surprise me, but also to infuriate me because I never felt like he was realizing his full potential. Instead of going home to read Escoffier, he was smoking joints and sliding down ski hills in the dark on real estate signs with other 20 year olds. He was young, I would tell myself. Eventually, I had to let go somewhat. As long as he didn’t smoke too much weed, and came in on his game, I accepted that I should let him be a kid. I still nagged him and explained things to him in great length both in and out of the kitchen, I totally mothered him. He went on to work all the stations, he got his red seal, and he did mature somewhat, I am very proud of him. But I doubt he will go on to be a ground-breaking chef.. Although he does love it and is great at it, he doesn’t have that consuming inner drive and passion for cooking that is required; in fact, he has since taken up graphic design. Sigh. (His company Epynord - they do websites and design for restaurants, is now booming.. http://www.epynord.com).
Nevertheless, he is a great cook who needs his fix on the line, and the best assistant a girl could have. He helps me once and while today, and it’s the best. He gets so much done, and executes so nicely. If I want a perfect brunoise or a clear consommé, better him than me. We don’t have to say much during service, everything goes smoothly, and I feel like I’m on vacation. I can trust him with just about anything, because I’ve drilled my ways into him, so that he does everything just how I like it. He even tastes like I do. He knows whether I will want a touch of salt or acid or spice. He spots anything that doesn’t make sense, a missing garnish, or something that is superfluous. But on the other hand, you can count on him to call me on anything if I haven’t practiced what I’ve preached, like not deglazing or straining, or if I don’t chop the chives finely enough. The brat. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve created a nit-picky monster. That’s Ok, it is good to be kept on your toes. I believe in reason and dialogue, fairness and coherence. Nothing is black and white, and so I still spend my time explaining the grey to him.
Nowadays, I don’t like my chives chopped too fine, I’m no longer in a Relais et Chateaux, and I find that mincing them denatures them. So there kiddo, I tell him, you don’t know it all yet, and neither do I. Although there are some basic truths and the primary principles are primordial, the rest is fluid, and context can change everything. It’s good to be precise, and have reference points, but you have to stay open minded, while being critical. This is the kind of thing I always tried to instil in him while teaching him how to cook a lobster or finish a sauce. I can’t help but think I sounded like my philosophy teacher in college, in whose class everyone snoozed away but me. However, I do like to think some of it was soaked up through osmosis.
Another bonus about my little squirt is that he fixes things (very handy), and he cracks me up. He is francophone and not fluent in English. However, be it from the Simpsons, the odd commercial or from being around fellow anglo cooks over the years, he has picked up all kinds of hilarious expressions, and he knows just when to use them. Although he can’t carry on a proper conversation in English, he has the perfect line, joke or jingle for every situation, and has impeccable timing, for better or for worse. He could even get me giggling when I was fuming at a critical moment during service at l’Eau. Trust me, not many people can unwind a wound-up soupnancy. Did I mention that he also gives a good massage?
All in all, he’s a fine cook, and a good kid. Like a mother who must accept that her straight A son wants to join the circus instead of going to med school, I have to let him do his thing and hope he’ll be happy. As long as he can come and chop my chives every now and again.
My Specimen Pete
by Nancy Hinton
(Food writing 2006)
I first met Pete ten years ago. He didn’t seem so odd, actually quite the opposite, he was a very stereotypical, well-bred Westmount boy, very “normal” for a tête carée. He liked his beef well done, and little else, certainly nothing green or strange looking. And so, the adventure started.
It began innocently, I just felt that he should try a certain menu item so that as a waiter he could describe it. I wanted him to appreciate what we were doing so that he could sell it. When I saw who I was dealing with, I knew I’d have to take it up a notch. He wasn’t the waiter who was ever going to kiss the kitchen’s ass, taste everything, ooh and ahh, no matter what I did. No, he would just turn up his nose. Infuriating.
I tried everything, from open assault, to secret trickery, anything to trip him up, to inadvertantly woo him, to open his mind. He was a tough case. It took years of camraderie and cajoling for him to even try his meat a little more pink. But we got him there, and then the tables turned. Slightly.
If he hadn’t married one of my best friends, I probably would have let the story die there. I certainly wouldn’t have bothered with him any longer. I wouldn’t have had the patience to follow his progress, let alone document it. I would have let my guinea pig continue to pace back and forth in the first leg of the maze, frustrated to not see him want to make it further, but resigned to his unadventurous nature. What did it really matter, I wasn't married to him. Nonetheless, I never gave up hope. I stuck it out, and with the help of many others, one day, we made it to the point where he was eating pork and salad that wasn’t iceberg.
I was always the type who felt the need to convert any picky eater. Tell me you didn’t like something, and I would make it how many ever ways it took to convince you otherwise. I did it with Bob with eggplant, with my family with lamb, with Ange with olives, with Jonathan with mushrooms, with dozens of people with coriander, or with tartare.... I felt like I had that power, even if it might have been more determination than actual cooking skills, but still, I could always do it. However, my specimen Pete made me feel powerless. As soon as he saw me coming over with all my wierdo foodie stuff, he would set off to make himself peanut butter sandwiches. I came close to throwing in the towel.
But there were a few victories here and there, and they kept me going for a while longer. He would love an amuse or a certain side dish – yay! He would gobble up my duck rillettes, and just when I thought I had him nailed, he would put up a new wall, and outright refuse to taste the foie gras sandwich everyone else was raving about. (And this was well before there was any media driven morality about foie gras). Not that Pete is all about morals anyway.
Eventually, I gave up trying to seduce him. Conspiring with his wife, we just decided to lie, which I’m sure she was already good at. It was all about the wording. Don’t mention salmon, even if the trout resembles salmon. Don’t mention that there is rabbit, just say chicken, don’t mention the cheese in the stuffing or the mushrooms in the sauce. Even though my menu was intricate, if Pete was in the room, it was simple, no worries, nothing exotic going on here.
The years went by. We left him alone more or less. And the funny thing is, when we weren’t looking, he slowly grew up. He now samples most things with a more open mind, he eats his steak medium rare, enjoys pork, veal, venison, even caribou! (Ok, that he didn’t know... or pretended not to anyway.) He has developed a taste for certain species of fish like tilapia, he loves sushi. He can appreciate a lobster boil Harrington Harbor style, he’s not far away from cheese fondue. Baby steps.... there’s hope for him yet. I can’t wait to see what kind of pancakes he will be making on Pancake Saturdays with the girls in twenty years.
Have we really outgrown our inferiority complex?
Nancy Hinton, (Food writing 2005)
Not so long ago in Quebec, all our chefs came from France. The only fine food was French, the most luxurious of foodstuffs imported. If it came from abroad, it was guaranteed some kind of status, much nobler than anything to be found here.
Perhaps then, it was largely true. We’ve come a long way, with a new breed of homegrown chefs, great local products, fine cheese, and even drinkable wine. Local and terroir have become catch phrases.
Yet, there is still a reticense, an unwillingness to pay top dollar for something from here. It takes much more marketing, convincing, support from celebrities etc. to make a local product fly.
In some cases, the product is indeed a work in progress, like many Quebec cheeses, that should be encouraged, but still lack the fine-tuning and expertise to command the highest price. Then again, often, the quality is there, has always been, it just needs to be discovered, or rediscovered and endorsed. A good example in nature is our wild mushrooms, or many wild plants for that matter. Some of them, the natives used and taught us Québecois to eat, but subsequently somehow, this knowledge got lost through the generations. Funny enough, fiddleheads held on. Many people (even chefs) still don’t believe that porcini or chanterelles grow here. Most mushrooms on Montreal menus come from abroad. We have crisp, tender sea asparagus on the shores of the St-Lawrence that is juicier, less woody, with the perfect level of saltiness, but still most people import it cooked and frozen from France if they know about it at all. Many excellent traditional recipes and preserves are made in Québec and sold in the countryside, but when you go into an épicerie fine in the city, you will not find them hidden among the majority of little jars from afar. There are top-notch artisanal products made in Québec, but they have a hard time selling them for the what they are worth. (Granted, there is alot of crap too. I have heard the complaint often that some hacks have ruined it for the others, indicating the need for some kind of quality control system like in Europe. Another story altogether, I digress.)
We obviously don’t value our homegrown industry much if we are so neglectful of our farmers and artisans, and so easily seduced by the easy, accessible, cheaper imports. You’d think it should be the opposite, that you would want to pay more for something local, that you can know everything about, to support your neighbor, and save the cost of transport on the environment. The global marketplace and our individualistic lives must have led us away from our social values. Or so I thought. It turns out the Quebecois have always had this inferiority complex, commonly turning up our nose on what was from here as too ordinary. On the contrary, the French and Italians for instance, always think that the closer to home the better.
I always wondered why this was, until one day at a food history and anthropology conference, someone was speaking about the diet in early New France, and I understood just how deep rooted this sentiment was. When it came to several indigenous foodstuffs, the colonists would not eat them until they were endorsed by the French or the English (corn, jerusalem artichoke?). Only if the Europeans desired it, was it good enough for our ancestors to eat. So, this inferiority complex is a part of our cultural heritage. I knew our colony was founded on derelects and rejects from the old world, and generally regarded by Europeans as a bare notch above the “savage” natives on the food chain, but still, this reverse food snobbism was a surprise to me. Funny, but not so funny. I guess I never got it because I have always been proud and patriotic, and I trust my palette. And when I like something, I really like something, especially if from here.
Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2005)
Food not heated beyond 38C.. just about body temperature. For most, that means no meat or fish, but also, no pasta, no bread, no cake; we’re talking raw fruit and vegetables and nuts. In the hands of creative chefs, it can get slightly more interesting, with zesty vinaigrettes, even pseudo cooked things like pie crust using dehydration, curing, and a lot of effort.
When I first got wind of this, I was intrigued, read all I could, let it influence my cooking somewhat, and shortly after, moved on. It didn’t grab me. I wondered if it would others. This wasn’t a trend I wanted to take over, but I would wait and see. Years later, I can fairly say that it never took the gastronomic world by storm; nonetheless, it is still there. I still bump into the odd raw foodist, either a diehard, or someone new to the idea, enchanted with yet another “new” diet. The striking thing is how overzealous raw foodists are. They’ve seen the light, and want to convert you.
From what the advocates say, it is the ultimate lifestyle. If you listen to them, these born again eaters who feel great all the time, eating raw seems so natural and righteous. Then why does it feel so wrong to me? After a little scrutiny, no wonder. All the claims, the basic premise even, don’t stand up scientifically. All the nonsense about enzymes, the killing of nutrients, the toxins created in cooking, amounts to a few kernels of truth taken out of context and supplemented with a bunch of hogwash.... In fact, we derive more nutrition and energy from cooked food, which is likely why we evolved that way, because it was to our advantage back when surviving was a little tougher.
As an eater, what turns me off raw food the most, first of all, is all the rules. I feel like I have enough rules to abide by in my life. So, when it comes to one of my most basic pleasures, I just don’t want to limit myself that much for no good reason. It would take more substantial moral or rational backing than that. And I have no practice at that anyway, I’m not Muslim or Jewish or fat, I’ve never had to pass up a piece of bacon. If I could really believe that it was more virtuous, than maybe, but how? By saving energy? Because it’s no fun?
As a cook, raw food disturbs me, because well, there wouldn’t be much to my job without the cooking. I suppose I would sweat a lot less not spending my days in a 40C kitchen. Come to think of it, just pulling the food out of the fridge on a hot day in the kitchen might be breaking the temperature rule.
No, the main thing for me, is that not cooking your food takes all the sensuous fun out of the process. You’re depriving yourself of all the seductive aromas and satisfying textures that only come from heat. Instead, you need to come up with all these contrived methods to coax out a minimal amout of flavor and texture, all for something that tastes less good, and that makes you fart. I like a challenge, but I’m not a masochist, not when it comes to food anyway.
For me, the raw food movement, like all new trends and techniques, is appealing in that it provides an interesting mental exercise. In exploring new ideas, you open your mind to new approaches to what you do, which is only beneficial. Like with molecular gastronomy, I’m inclined to dabble, learn a few tricks. But, I’m seeking illumination, which this has very little of, not a new religion.
There are a few restaurants around, even high-end ones with matching wine programs, that specialize in raw food. Cru in Montreal has a very imaginative, appealing menu; cudos to them for their menu, and for being so courageous. I guess there is room for one raw food emporium in our city. Hey, I might even try it one day. What the hell, I love salad, vegetables, carpaccio and oysters. I might be even be able to get on that kind of diet for a couple of weeks.. in summer.
The truth is, I wouldn’t last long in a raw food world. You would have to shoot me. Don’t take away the heady aroma of freshly baked bread, the pull and crunch of a good crust, the primal pleasure of a seared chop, a caramelized onion.... or the soft, satisying luxury of mashed potatoes or roasted eggplant.
I love the bright, green taste of a fresh tomato, the crunch of raw fennel in a salad, and I love tartare. But I equally love the warm comfort and complexity of stewed tomatoes, slowly braised fennel, and osso bucco especially on a cold day. Why dehydrate a potato when you can simmer it in broth? Why hang garlic over the stove for 12 hours to try to soften it, when you can just throw it in the oven for 1?. Why soak almonds when you can toast them? Why eat raw carrots or mushrooms or zucchini when you can roast them? How about artichokes, no artichokes?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong believer in pure food. Overly processed food is in no one’s interest. But we cook our food carefully, we make it more palatable, more interesting, and we derive more nourishment and pleasure from it. And we’re better for it. The idea that things in their natural state are inherently better is false anyway. Many things are toxic in their pure form and only reveal their benefits (to us) once transformed. Plants have a built-in mechanism to harm their predator, and they will harm us we don’t use our intelligence to take advantage of that by cooking them when need be. It just allows us to have a more varied diet, which is commonly what stands out in studies as being most healthy.
All in all, raw food as a rule is just not for me. I say eat whatever you want, start a movement if you want, just don’t take the moral high road.
By Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
I admit there is some truth in the saying “good things come in small packages”. But by the looks of plates coming out of today’s top kitchens, it appears that really good things ONLY come in the smallest of packages, and the smaller the better.
It isn’t only on the runway that youth and petiteness is revered. As far as vegetables go, small and hence young, usually means sweet. With meat, young most often means tender, and again sweet. There is no denying that youth yields some of the most pleasing characteristics. But there’s something to be said for a slightly older and gamier tasting hen, or a big carrot that can stand up to some long cooking and develop a deep, earthy sweet flavor. I have decided that it is time to root for the underdog and take a stand against the size discrimination rampant in the gastronomic world.
It suddenly struck me one day at work when I heard myself reiterating to a waiter that the green at hand was indeed arugula, not the mini or the regular, but the micro variety. With a dozen different baby greens in an array of sizes garnishing the dishes, the waiters are in a constant state of confusion trying to keep it all straight, periodically reaching for their spectacles. Trust me, you need glasses to detect the specific arugula shape when it comes to the micro green. You could just as easily miss it if you didn’t chew your food carefully. However, a leaf of the micro mizuna does acoompany the teeny stuffed beet perfectly, and the micro tatsoi is a most appropriate topping for that tiny cube of seared tuna.
Anyway, so here I was, both annoyed and amused by this waiter who was incapable of differentiating one micro green from another, and as I launched into a full explanation featuring the words micro, mini and baby enough times in one breath to sound the ridiculous bells, I could only chuckle. Perhaps I had reached the peak of serious nonsense in the cooking world.
In a high-end restaurant kitchen, the cooking comprises many details that clients could seldom detect, but the sum of which make the difference between mediocre and “wow” in taste. In the process of working towards this ideal, I had unconsiously found myself in a sort of surreal place, far removed from what most people consider cooking. Here, every dish entails twelve steps, most ingredients have a pedigree, and miniscule garnishes abound. In my days of only associating with itty-bitty vegetables, I could picture myself as one of the “Littles”, I found myself dreaming of diving into the jar of plums in porto or taking a nap on a soft bun on the proofing rack.
I knew I was muddled when I literally jumped at the sight of a regular carrot in my home fridge. Yikes! What was that hideous thing doing in my vegetable bin, I wondered. Oooh, and there’s a fully-grown, big, ugly pepper. Being the only non-condiment, non-liquid food items in my fridge, I cooked them up nontheless. After a most satisfying meal, I felt guilty for having looked at these poor “mutants” so snobbishly. Especially the carrot! Oversized or not, how could I ever disrespect one of the sacred trio of mirepoix ingredients in French cookery (onion, celery, carrot)? Shame on me! Come to think of it, the pepper too is noble in any size, being fundamental to Spanish and Cajun cuisine as a part of soffrito and the holy trinity. Double shame.
It was time to make amends, and stand up for the big, the old, and the shunned.
I have defended less popular ingredients and forgotten vegetables before. I recall getting indignant when raving about a sunchoke gratin I had made, and a French chef I worked with scowled and told me they fed sunchokes to their pigs in France. Jerusalem artichokes, like celery and potatoes, are humble ingrediends that have at times been dismissed, only to be rediscovered. They have always been noble in my eyes. They’re tasty, wholesome, versatile, and perfectly good food, so I retorted that their pigs only benefited from their masters’ ignorance, ha.
I also get mad when I see someone picking through the eggplants or cucumbers at the market, favoring the perfectly shaped ones. What does it matter unless you’re doing a buffet centerpiece, and even then? I suspect that the more unique looking ones taste better anyway. I get suspicious if my fruit, vegetable or fish filet is too nicely uniform in appearance. It probably means that somone is fiddling with the breeding or chemical environment somewhere down the line. And I don’t want a square watermelon, certainly not for $100, thank you. The Japanese, creators of this “luxury” watermelon really do take esthetic to an extreme. Thankfully, the Japanese chefs I’ve come across also back it up with quality, which is what matters most.
I’m all for a nice presentation, it just sould not take precedence. The look should promise the quality the dish will deliver. It provides an additional layer of titillation and pleasure. Sure, we eat with our eyes first, but more so after with our mouth and nose. Although I usually cringe at the sight of over-worked food, crazy architecture and too many colors of the rainbow, I can appreciate a pretty plate design. Contrasting colors and texture add an element of fun and surprise, forcing you to stop to pay attention, to be delighted before even beginning, the opening applause. Like putting on complimentary clothes and a touch of make-up on a night out, presenting food in visually pleasing way is fine if it enhances the natural beauty, just no clown make-up, please. As long as the food tastes like food in the end, not art. Don’t use pea coulis for green color if the taste of pea does nothing for the compositon. Don’t use small just because it’s cute.
Appearances always count, but with food, it’s much more about flavor. There’s no point in cooking up some gorgeous hothouse tomatoes that taste like water. Like I couldn’t go out with a boring guy just because he was good on paper. Life and tummy space are just too precious. A zucchini flower is darling, but unless it’s properly treated, it has as much appeal as a mouthful of burrs. If you’re using a highly seasoned, heavy vinaigrette, then forget aobut micro-greens; they will be dead before they reach the table. Baby corn isn’t nearly as satisfying as a fresh mature ear; it hasn’t had the chance to develop its true character.
Big isn’t completely out though, especially not in America, the land of the giant burger and towering Philly sandwiches, but in fine dining everywhere, everything seems to be shrinking except the plate. Some people still order jumbo shrimp, or impress their friends by tackling an oyster the size of a Frisbee, but generally the wee things win out. I can’t help but find little quails cute too, and oh, such adorable little eggs. Then again, a large duck egg, now there’s an omelet for two.
In my daily entourage of the young and the teeny in this glamorous world, I guess I needed to be reminded not to forget about the big guys, and keep my snobbery in check. There is life after youth. I still can’t help but gaze lovingly at the baby eggplants, they are beautiful, and less bitter, but then, there’s also a larger skin to flesh ratio. You see, all sizes have something to offer, and have their place in the kitchen. And then there is always the stockpot, or in a restaurant kitchen, there’s staff meal. And if we won’t eat it, then there are always the pigs to feed...
The Chef – artist, technician, businessperson or kook?
Unearthing the essence of a professional cook
Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
For years, cooks have been overlooked, under paid, and often disregarded as menial labor, mere servants, rejects from academia and the mainstream. But now that dining out and cooking have become the most popular social activities of the upper class, everyone wants a peek into the kitchen. They want to know what is going on, who these mysterious people are.
As we gaze at these celebrity chef stars, we naturally gather that a chef today is primarily a fun, charismatic carefree and wealthy guy like Emeril. Or a serious artist and meticulous workaholic with magical powers allowing him to be in multiple locations at once, globe trotting and making cameo appearances in the occasional movie like Charlie Trotter. Maybe, he/she is a rough and tough, dope-smoking, pan flinging crazy man like Anthony Bourdain. Or by the looks of Wolfgang Puck and Alain Ducasse, he/she is a corporate businessperson above all. How accurate are thes depictions of the modern chef? Are they living proof of the evolution of the lowly cook of yesteryear?
Indeed, these chefs are true masters at the height of the profession and worthy of their status. Nonethess, they show us only part of the picture, some of what is possible. Their public images are mere sketches that give a skewed image, the glamour overshadowing the real essence of the professional chef. Take these new coverboys and dig beneath the shiny gloss of the designer chefwear, the logos, their extravagant signature dishes, and what do you get?
You see the real stuff that is strutted in kitchens across the globe behind closed doors. This is my world, and from the front lines, I can tell you that in reality, the professional cook is much more than meets the eye. He/she is still the skilled laborer, technician and robot of the Escoffier era. He/she is an artist too, however not to the extent that many seem to think. Frankly, I get annoyed at how often people allude to my vocation as art. As if I go to work, get inspired; whip a few things together and voilà, job complete. Yes, there is a creative element reserved for the few at the top of the ladder, but even then, it amounts to a small percentage of the workload. Moreover, it’s creative expression on a strict time frame among many other constraints like feasibility due to staff, materials, equipment, profibability, etc. The truth is that professional cooking is much more about systematic, tedious, backbreaking tasks, as well as discipline and organization. Of course, behind the scenes, traditon and science plays an important role in terms of setting the rules and guiding principles that must be respected. So, the masterful chef is at once a scholar, composer, conductor and army seargent leading a brigade of cooks.
A good cook, whether doling out the commands or following them, has to also have a good palate, he/she has to be in tune with his/her senses so that he/she can be able to qualify the desired result and reproduce it. Besides taste, there are other less objective natural qualities that a cook must possess inorder to succeed. The knack, “tour de main”, the instinct and feel, that “je ne sais quoi” that other cooks can spot a mile off, and is usually mixed in with an unbridled passion and zest for life. When its the real thing, its in the blood, always there both in and out of the kitchen.
Besides all the right brain demands, the chef must have strong left brain capacities. While being a dreamer and artist of sorts, he/she must be logical, methodical, practical, business wise, as well as a good manager of time, resources and money.
A good chef is also an honest, conscientious person who cares, who values and respects the ingredients and the people, involved. Diplomacy is indisputably a crucial asset. Although tempermental chefs and playground politics persist in kitchens more than in the rest of the civilized world, it is becoming less acceptable. Most chefs spend their time seeking the elusive balance that is found in a disciplined but positive environment. He/she needs good people skills to survive, as the cook is a team player under pressure.
The chef is an arbitrator, a keeper of the peace and a public relations officer in the constant dealings with staff, suppliers and customers.
Because the cook’s environment is so variable, with umpteen things that can go awry, he/she must be a cool headed problem solver, able to adapt when found short staffed, with malfunctioning equipment, or short of key ingredients. Regardless of circumstances, the cook’s demands and deadlines remain the same day in, day out.
This leads to the obvious necessary attribute of a chef, good health. He/she must be robust and tough. I will always remember a cooking teacher’s first words of advice, “If you are one to get sick or tired easily, then please don’t waste your time, this profession is not for you!” So often, I have noted how true that is with the grueling schedules, the long hours on your feet in inhumanely hot conditions, often without regular breaks to eat or have a sip of water or use the facilities. Not to mention all the cuts and burns and bad backs.
To make it, a cook must not only be thick skinned physically, but strong mentally, and emotionally as well. The kitchen has always been a macho place full of egos, with no room for the weak and whimpery. Working a double shift with a severed digit held together with a quick bandage of paper towel and duct tape without a word is just one of those things you do. Dealing with stress, criticism and unfair scenarios are par for the course. Weakness in any form is scorned, or quickly the fodder for teasing, the cooks’ main source of amusement when the pace slows at all.
Whether it’s in a restaurant kitchen or a hotel or catering, even teaching or in the media, the chef’s job is multi-faceted at its core. In subject matter, it starts with a huge body of knowledge based on history, traditon and science that cooks draw on for guidance and inspiration. This is the structured, absolute, academic basis of cooking. Then there’s the practical side in the form of skills, training and repetition. This element provides the gratification of working with your hands, getting your hands dirty, feeling physcially exhausted and concretely rewarded at the end of the day.
Another major factor is the constant challenge inherent. There’s always more to learn. Plus, the variable, unpredictable nature of the business makes it a constant battle to stay afloat, let alone progress. So the cook is by implication at thrill seeker and a fighter.
The kind of person that is drawn to, and blossoms in this kind of environment is a quirky type no doubt. That’s another story. Suffice to say that cooking as a career values many different sets of skills and qualities, attracting people from all kind of backgrounds, providing all those involved with a broad scope of challenges and stimuli.
The one thing we all have in common more than anything is the bottom line. Cooking is primarily about nourishing people. It’s about giving and simple pleasures. It’s about sharing and celebrating life. For any real cook, that is the beginning and the end. And so, the chef is first and formost a giver, a people’s person, and a lover of life. This is what grounds us and generates the most personal satisfaction.
Along with that comes a feeling that you’re doing something real and good, a part of something greater. That general notion of being connected stems from inputs from the earth, people, and time. We are reminded of our link to the planet on a daily basis through our dependence and our reverence for the fruits of the land in our excitng dance with the weather and seasons. Not all cooks realize this, but it’s an undercurrent.
We come into contact with people of all walks of life through our customers, suppliers, farmers and co-workers. And let me tell you, the restaurant world attracts all kinds of “special” people. Making it work together is another dance. And as we dance our dance every day, feed and restore people, we participate in a ritual common to everyone that lives around the world, and that has lived before us. We do it in a way that is shaped by our predecessors and the current food trends, the tastes of people today. This expression of popular culture marks our place in time, while the dishes and techniques of generations past connects us to them. We keep these stories alive, and make new ones. The cook who is conscious of all this and puts it back into his/her cooking is then also a romantic, one even might say religious, or at least spiritual.
As you can see, the professional chef is a lot of things, and his/her world, although generally removed from the limelight and hazardous to the health, is a supremely interesting, and comforting place.
Nancy Hinton, Food writing 2006
You know what I mean… the worst case scenario of what ever it is that you do in life. When everything goes awry, and all your worst fears come true. In the restaurant business, when any given minute, so much can go wrong, whether you’re a manager, waiter or cook, hell is always on the horizon. Maybe it’s because we brush with disaster so frequentlly, that the fear is so real, and the nightmare so common. We’re talking stress dreams here, I’m sure many people have them, not only in the restaurant business. Neurosurgeons and air traffic controllers, even politicians, face more daunting stress levels than we do, but they are likely a less emotional, volatile bunch. Who knows, they probably have them too. If you’re someone who takes your job seriously, and brings your work home, you’re bound to either suffer bouts of insomnia and dreams relating to work when you finally do nod off.
In any case, that’s me, whether I’m stressed or not. In university, I had the never-ending, impossible math problem that I tried to solve all night. When I was a waitress, it was food hitting the floor, drinks spilling on people, customers walking out, others going into anaphylactic shock. The restaurant was always full with a line-up, no food coming out of the kitchen, everyone calling my name. As a chef, it’s still about the food hitting the floor and everyone calling my name, but also supplies not arriving, fingers getting cut off, mutiny among the brigade, and detrimental reviews. And always with the sound of the chit machine spewing out an endless number of orders, and we can never keep up. At the ever busy Tavern, that sound plagued me, it was always there in the background.
The nightmare takes on many forms, but generally, it goes like something like this. You’re putting out a table of eight, and the last dish comes out late while the other dishes have been waiting, the waiters are tapping their heels, but then catastrophically, it hits the floor and splatters, and it was your last piece of fish. Now you have to tell the customer you don’t have the fish he’s been waiting for for 30min, and all the other dishes have to be redone. The backlog of orders behind will suffer, everyone’s timing is off, everyone is steamed. And this is only the beginning. When you collided with the dishwasher and lost your fish, a glass was knocked over, falling into your MEP. Normal activity has to come to a halt, glass is serious business, all of it is garbage. You have to suddenly rechop your shallots, whip up an aioli, slice some procuitto, starting with the things you need now for this order... you will have to think about the rest later which is a scary thought, because if that isn’t in two minutes, you’re screwed, other tables are waiting. The team goes into crises mode, and those who can help, do. Your mate is nice enough to leave his station and run off to slice you some proscuitto, he slices his finger off, he can’t work for a few minutes (if he’s a tough one) while someone else sets him up with a make-shift bandage, the board is full, and the kitchen is flooding. You step through the puddle, trying to catch up a bit and pump out another order once that one is fired, but you forget about the garlic allergy, it goes out. A salad comes back because someone found a bolt in it (what the f..k!, must be from the fridge...who knows), give the gardemanger crap, make another one, comp wine. A customer has to leave because he’s not feeling well.. shit, the garlic! A plate of oysters comes back, and I can smell it coming..how did that make it to the table? Hit the gardemanger over the head again. Meanwhile the first dessert orders are coming in, and we suddenly realize that the freezer isn’t working, the ice creams are soft, the sorbets have separated. Nothing is coming out of the kitchen, the maitre d’ is freaking out. An oblivious VIP wants a tour of the kitchen, you smile and pretend everything is cool, but can’t do it, you flip out and get fired. On and on.
Or it’s 5pm on a fully booked night, and your fish order hasn’t arrived, it’s a new menu night and everyone is scrambling, the dishwasher has called in sick, everything you taste is not right... You want to yell at everyone. Or could it be your tastebuds? Take a deep breath, have another coffee. The coffee doesn’t taste right, alert the manager, not your problem, tell him there is no time for staff meal tonight, order pizza. He’s upset, fuck it. Showtime is approaching and nothing is ready, you have to pull it together, but you can’t. Then, all the customers show up at the same time, early, and order the not yet tweaked tasting menu, along with umpteen special orders. This night will be hell. On and on.
Some nights, the dreams aren’t so bad. On a good night, I just slice smoked salmon all night very methodically and perfectly, to a nice beat. Or I just roll dough or make ravioli all night. Or I like to chop fragrant herbs with a knife that never dulls. Those are the best dreams, so relaxing, so Zen. Otherwise, the only break I get is with a drunken stupor.
It’s not so bad now with my life here in the sticks. I occasionally wake up to someone dying of mushroom intoxication or François and I strangling eachother or the weak, non-commercial hood blowing up in flames. But now that I’m writing, it’s more likely that I am rewriting or editing a piece all night, and I write whole new pieces that I remember segments of the next day. I guess I was just meant to work by night.
As far as the cooking dreams go, I think they probably make me a better cook, by making me more prepared, motivating me to take more precautions so that the nightmare doesn’t become reality. So far, it has served me well I think, because although all of the above mentioned mishaps really did happen, they weren’t all at once, they were quite few and far between, and ressolved promptly, with no one walking out or getting fired or dying on the spot. I do believe too that a really good cook works with this underlying fear, or at least a constant humbling respect for the wild nature of the business, of the unknown. And as one of my first chefs told me, with all the details to attend to, a good cook needs a little fire under the ass, a certain anxiousness inorder to rise above it all. Of course, getting a good night’s sleep is important for anyone’s performance, so again, it’s all about balance. As long as I have the odd gravelax dream, I reckon I’ll be ok.
Understanding it and using it for a more colorful life
By Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
I use my palette to play games, to express myself, to challenge myself. It gives me food for thought, a window into my past, my true self. It’s an infinitely fascinating part of the human anatomy, and a revealing way to observe others.
Some famous sayings suggest a strong link between our food choices and disposition. “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you who you are.” (Brillat Savarin), and the common, “You are what you eat.”.
The palette is obviously an important part of a person’s character. It’s a trait like any other, being athletic or lazy, liking the blues or being a neat freak. This is one personal quality that is brought up on a daily basis, on display, readily shared, that others have to accomodate since so much of our business is done at the table.
Everyone’s palate is unique, and that’s a wonderful thing. Especially today, people seem to be proudly claiming their specific gustatory profile and taking it out. However, it can also cause trouble, all these clashing palates. The phenomenon of special eating habits has no doubt spread in the past years. You cannot have a dinner party anymore without being faced with considering all the possible allergies, the vegetarians in all their various forms...There are the pseudo veg heads who eat no red meat, but poultry and/or fish is Ok, others accept broth, but no flesh, dairy can be in or out, honey, it depends, and so on. Then, there are the lactose intolerant in which case even goat’s cheese is not ok, or those allergic to bovine protein, in which case goat’s milk is Ok. There are the raw foodists, the people who have restrictions for political or environmental reasons, the diabetics and people on special diets for medical reasons, or those on the low-carb fad diet of the moment.
People are suddenly fanatically picky about their food. It’s become almost fashionable to have your own special rules. I suppose it’s an effective, easy vehicle for self-expression. Perhaps it makes a person feel unique and interesting to be the only person to think they’re allergic to celery. Maybe he/she feels like making a little drama out of the mundane. Or maybe, he/she just wants a little extra attention and pampering after a hard day. Not to mention that it can be a useful tool to appear virtuous and admirable if the ban of a certain foodstuff shows restraint, being health conscious, or makes a social statement.
The thing is, when these special needs are toted to the restaurant or to a dinner event, they often inconvenience others, and create unneccessary stress. While other forms of selfish behavior wouldn’t be commonly tolerated, it seems quite acceptable for people to be demanding, irrational and uptight if it’s done through their food specifications. At its worst, this behavior is antisocial, closed-minded and spoiled brattish.
I do respect that sometimes people have to monitor their diet for specific reasons, and I have always personally taken allergies and all precautions very seriously. But because of all the crying wolf, restaurant cooks have become a little weary. Now that the exception has become the rule, the hypochondriacs have spoiled it for the truly allergic, making it more dangerous for everyone. The moral impact of sane choices has been lost in a sea of fads and fickle nonsense. It wouldn’t hurt all of us to slow down and loosen up abit.
Besides the benefits of a stress free time at the table and a balanced diet, most of the fussy people don’t realize what they’re missing, and just how flexible their palates really are. That’s the other thing. Our palate, like most of our traits, is a work in progress. We have a genetic set point or range that is influenced by our environment and what we do with it.
Once you open your mind and palette to new taste sensations, the results are surprising. I’ve seen it countless times, with my own palette, and with those of people around me. One friend, who would not eat any fish or meat except well-done steak, has gone from eating it medium to medium rare, to partaking in the occasional veal or pork chop, even now sausages and salmon!
I have witnessed many with an aversion to spice gradually work their way through spicier and spicier dishes to ultimately develop a true addiction to chilies. In the same way, I have seen people who were frightened or disgusted by a ripe smelly cheese become fond of the most pungent blue, once working their way through the mozzarella to Stilton spectrum.
Many strong tastes are acquired. Most people are taken aback at best, revolted at worst, or at least puzzled by their first encounter with something foreign, be it the aromatic coriander leaf, the exotic soapy aroma of wild ginger, or the fishy, unattractive looking anchovy. The slimy oyster, a gamy cut of boar, or a spongy piece of calf’s brain often require a.few tries as well. Once past the initial jolt, a second or third taste leaves a clearer impression, and will lead the skeptic down a new path, if not away from offal, than on a trip to the Orient. More often than not, it takes you on an exciting course of discovery, introducing you to new pleasures.
No matter what, you learn a little more about yourself and the world around you. I get immense pleasure watching the uninitiated travel this path... from a fish-free life to fresh sea bass to trout, to anchovies and sushi, to shellfish, from a mussel to oysters Rockefeller, to a raw oyster, to Champagne and new oyster shucker friends. The growth and exuberence that follows such excursions reminds me of seeing a kid discover how fun it is to toboggan, skate or dive after getting over the initial fear of trying.
The reality is that virtually all tastes are aquired. We are born with a clean palette, except for a built-in distaste for some of the most harmful toxins common to all humans, the rest is learned. As with most of our traits, we surely have a predisposition, a genetic set point, and from there, it is what we do with it, along with our close environment, that determines our palette. Depending on our upbringing, our experiences associated with certain foods, we develop likes and dislikes. A child’s palette is in constant flux, a child can trick his/her brain into making a certain taste favorable or not, as any parent will attest.
Not only can we influence our tastebuds, we can to some extent control a reaction to a sensory experience through mind-set, coaching, knowledge or moral beliefs. We can develop it with time, attention and repetition. That’s what we cooks do. Because we are using our palette critically day in, day out, regularly thinking about what we’re tasting, breaking it down into the elements, our sensitivity automatically becomes heightened. That explains why cooks have sharp tastebuds despite all their smoking, coffee drinking, and their different backgrounds. Like any other sense, the more you use it, the more acute it becomes. Of course, you can beat it up by too much smoking, piercing your tongue, or eating on the run.
To start with, we all have varying hardware, all in different stages of development at a given time. Its been said that some people are born with thousands more taste buds than others (the supertasters), and that females typically have more taste buds than men. Then they are all the physical factors that further alter our sensory experience, for example: age, disease, pregnancy, hormonal cycles, diet. We can build up a tolerance to a certain ingredient, requiring more of it for the same effect, as in the case of salt or chilies. So our palette is subject to change depending on lifestyle.
All this makes for a world of different. How do we have any idea what another person is tasting, especially since few are good at describing taste beyond yummy or yucky, or even in the simplest terms: salty, sour, bitter, sweet? This is foremost on a cooks mind, and makes for a constant battle in concocting something pleasing for the average palette. Due to the variability of palettes, it is imperative that we cooks constantly analyze our palettes by listening to customers and fellow staff, to know where we stand in the wide spectrum inorder to be able to season accordingly. It also helps to have the target audience in mind, to have a consistent scheme, and to be responsive.
The funny thing is that despite all this theory, most of us can generally agree on what’s good, bad or in between if we want to. Somehow, it all seems to even out in the end because the palette is so adaptable. It makes sense too from an evolutionary point of view. Our palette should allow us to find most available things palatable if necessary for survival, aside from alerting us to something potentially harmful.
Because the palette is so adaptable by nature, no one should let themselves be governed by strict rules. Every taste experience should be treated as a unique, stimulating source of pleasure, intrigue or comfort.
Moreover, the more playful approach we take to our food and the more we try, the more our palette evolves, and the more fun we get from eating. More pleasure at the table can only add to our quality of life. New experiences, new appetities, triumphs, shared laughs, and all that comes from being more adventurous can be the best tonic in this crazy world, providing a spring in the step, a renewed zest for life. Unless experimenting with chicken sushi, there is relatively little danger. Someone who is open minded and fun at the table is more pleasant to be around too. Increased popularity means more invites, new aquaintances, and more good times, all from trying a bit of gizzard. Ok, so maybe a sample of your dining partner’s eel might not change your life, but it certainly makes the day a touch more interesting. Every new stimulus for the senses, mind or heart makes us feel more alive. And why not make the most out of life?
I agree with M. Savarin and his food metaphors for life; its a fun way to look at the world, and as meaningful as any. I know I can’t help but judge someone by what and how they eat, and it has generally served me well. Someone with an appetite at the table usually has an appetite for life and takes pleasure in the simple things, like someone who is open minded at the table will be in life. Someone who races through his or her meal without tasting, most likely races through life without thinking, or really enjoying life. Someone who is greedy at the table is probably greedy in life, and someone who pokes at their food is likely untrusting, overly analytical, or insecure. Someone who doesn’t react to their food probably doesn’t have much of a personality, or is unhealthily depressed or stressed.
That’s why I think dinner, as a first date is most appropriate. By the main, I can tell whether this is someone I would want to get to know better or not, if our palettes can ever meet. And in the case of a bad date, at least I have the food as a distraction.
Not only does paying attention to people at the table give me insight into strangers, it helps with dear ones too. By knowing a friend’s particular eating habits makes me feel closer to them and allows me to interact with them better. Knowing their weaknesses gives me a way to please (or bribe) them, and knowing their dislikes enables me to respect them, or avoid aggravating them when that counts most.
In all its complexity and mystery, our palette is most useful in getting the most out of life. Treat your palette like a life long friend, listen to it, talk back to it, tease it, tickle it, play with it, soothe it, take care of it, take it on trips, don’t stifle it or let it stifle you, let it grow, and grow with it...
When I wrote this, I was young, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, the sky was the limit. I thought I should try everything, ask no questions. Now I’m an advocate for quite the opposite. Wait, think...where does this come from, how was it produced, was no one exploited etc.?... I now encourage people to be difficult in a way, quite contradictory to the theme of this article. I guess that sometimes you do have to control your palette, or at least inform it. Afterall, it is connected to the brain, we do have a brain and should use it. Like we have to reign in other of our instinctual urges depending on circumstance. If you know how much that calf suffered to provide the white succulent flesh of its gland that is your dinner (sweetbreads), then maybe it won’t taste so good, and so you can follow your palette and still be on the right path. As long as its for the right reasons, not just plain uptightness. Then again, everyone has his or her reasons. I just can’t be so judgemental anymore. To each his own palette.
The Walking, Talking, Pan-flipping Contradiction
By Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
Although the professional cook’s image is changing somewhat in the age of celebrity chefdom, the cook is largely a blue-collar worker, a survivor among the dreggs of society, the best of the poor misfits. At the same time, a cook at any level, is privy to a degree of admiration and glory, and is surrounded by all the elements of the good life. He is exposed to the finest ingredients of luxury from around the world. In his line of work, he has the privilege to sample the most rare delicacies, taste vintage wines, eat off silverware, brush shoulders with the rich and famous.
By association, the lowly restaurant worker finds himself in a world of well to do people, the movers, the shakers, the aristocrats, and the epicures. He can easily come to feel a part of that world, however deluded the notion is. He has involuntarily developed a discriminating palate to match, a taste for the finer things in life. But then, he goes home to his dive, peanut butter in the fridge (if he is one of the grounded few) and is reminded of the big picture and his place in it.
He might be content, or he might feel a little frustrated and resentful. Others carry on the charade, stocking caviar, truffle oil, fleur de sel, every variety of specialty vinegar, oil and condiment, and inevitably a negative bank account, because cooks don’t earn much.
Restaurant workers are a segment of the population notorious for living beyond their means. They work so hard; they figure they deserve it. They go out, live the high life, dropping insensible amounts of money on food and wine because they value these indulgences, whether they can afford them or not. Few other mortals would conceive of spending half a weeks’s pay on a tasting menu.
A cook in a high-end restaurant is egged along this inevitable tortuous path not only by his acquired tastes, but also by the compounding delusionary effect of his ego. Prone to ego stroking by nature, on top of the natural feeling of accomplishment that accompanies surviving a day in the kitchen, the cook easily fells elevated, on a power trip as the provider of your pleasure.
Boosted by testosterone and the bonding camaraderie of the kitchen, he feels like a king. Master of sharp utensils, a hazardously hot, stressful environment, master problem solver, he can do it all. He can even spit into your dish if he feels like it. Waiters, suppliers, customers, everyone wants to be his friend. This breeds an exalted feeling, the gateway to delusion. It is so easy for him to forget that he is at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, no money in the bank, with no benefits or security.
In a heartbeat, the bubble can be burst, and the regal thoughts become a distant pipe dream. All it takes is a mis-step and a good verbal lashing by the chef, he wakes up to find himself humiliated, covered in grease, sweat drenched and thirsty. He is sore from exhaustion, all of a sudden, feeling his latest battle scars, the cuts and burns. He realizes he hasn’t had a sip of water in hours, hasn’t had a meal or been to the washroom since he left home that morning, and he hasn’t had a vacation in years. He momentarily wants out of this hell, but he curses his sorrows away and perserveres out of pride. He knows deep down that these brutal lows are matched by the sweet highs of working the line, of feeling that magic.
Akin to being a part of an orchestra or a sports team struggling for the title, a cook gives everything he’s got for the team, rides the ups and downs for a taste of that intangible beauty of a seamless shift where it all works. A smooth execution with no hitches that aren’t swiftly and cleverly corrected, where in the night long dance, no one steps on each others’ toes, when it all comes together in a cohesive, magical way to a standing ovation and lots of beer.
On another night, despite all the hard work and good intentions of a crew, it can all fall apart due to an electrical problem, a breakdown in communication, human error or countless other variables. Or dreadedly, for some reason, a customer is dissatisfied and returns a plate. Whether it is a customer’s unreasonable demands or a plain fuck-up, the slogan of the customer always being right comes to haunt. The cooks shit their pants, but it is the chef, ultimately responsible, who has to stand up. He might be left baffled, angry, whipped, defeated. But being someone who is primarily out to please and at the mercy of accounts payable, he will acquiesce, do whatever he can to solve the problem. The cooks are mad or scared, he has to be a leader. He swallows his pride and steps down to the level of mere service provider, stripped of his knowledge, hard work and talent in one fell swoop, he just has to please. On a bad day, it might make him question everything, is it really worth it?
The moment passes, the night ends, and either a compliment or a glass of good wine helps wash away the day’s grievances. Soon enough, he is happily back in the precarious position of balancing the harsh reality and sweet fantasy of kitchen life, living the contradiction of being a star and a humble slave to the stove, his brigade behind him, an army of other star/ slaves bred to be walking, talking, pan-flipping contradictions.