Food is a process

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A "French Laundry" marathon - What is this all about?

There are six of us. We met in the semi-random fashion that Los Angeles affords: casual acquaintances that got together for a girl scout cookie martini (or three) at a pretentious bar on the promenade. It could have been bad, or at the very least not fun. But it not only was fun, we ended up talking about food and cooking essentially right off the bat. None of the inane chit-chat that fills oh so many shallow LA nights out, just an immediate connection. And the talk of food.

But, you see, we weren't friends yet. We didn't really know each other. God knows that people drift apart so easily in this city that you can't afford to assume you'll hang out again soon, you need a plan. So we thought that a good way to get to know each other would be to have dinner parties, in view of our interest in cuisine. This is what we would do: each week, one of us would cook dinner for the rest; we would rotate each week, and couples are not allowed to "share responsibilities": each member of the couple must still provide a full dinner to every one else.

Once again, the potential for disappointment was huge. This sounds just like one of those vague and hopeful plans that never really pan out, there might be one or two dinners and then things would start to fizzle out, the group to break, the dinners would stop. But we actually did it. Are still doing it, as a matter of fact. Sure, we skipped the occasional week, but all in all, over almost two years, we have been turning out fare regularly. Menus have varied from the spectacular to the mundane, but always delicious. Evenings have been mellow, argumentative, rushed, drunken, smooth, surprising, failures, smashing successes, cramped into a tiny apartment, hot as a wood burning brick oven, meticulously planned, improvised, missing ingredients, providing too much food, followed by late night splashes into a cold pool, preceded by a mid-afternoon dip into a warm pool, and everything in between. In short, they have been and continue to be a shit-load of fun.

But the most interesting and satisfying aspect of these dinners has been the learning experience they represent in terms of expanding our culinary prowess. Many times we have thought about having some sort of record of what we cooked, so that we could look back years from now and marvel at our own accomplishments. This is an attempt to finally actually doing just that.

It has been kick-started by our latest feat. Nick and I, separately and within a week of each other, both came into possession of Thomas Keller's "The French Laundry Cookbook". We started reading it, and we were both blown away. Here was a guy that talked about cooking as if it were a mission, something that is not just a pastime, or a diversion, or even a passion, but as something of great importance. Both of us, Nick and I, were moved by the way Mr. Keller talks about food and cooking: he says that the slow everyday prep work, say cleaning several pounds of artichokes to make barigoule (a classic French artichoke stew) is not a necessary evil on the way to turning out your masterpiece culinary treat; on the opposite, that is what cooking truly is, the slow and focused repetition of movements that have been selected through centuries of cooking as the perfect ones to make an artichoke taste good. He talks about respecting your ingredients. He talks about the fact that this book is not a collection of recipes for 30-minutes "gourmet" dishes for the home enthusiast that is looking for a quick alternative to Wendy's on a weeknight so he can justify calling himself a gourmand to his colleagues at work. It is not four star food adapted for the home: it's four star food period.

Most importantly, he is wonderfully unapologetic about the fact that most of his recipes take a staggering amount of time to complete. I mean multiple days. You have to read a recipe in advance before even thinking of venturing it, because it is likely to have in the ingredient list something like:

tomato powder (page xxx)

and then you look it up, and you're supposed to dry out tomatoes for a looong time in a microwave oven at half power until it's possible to grind it into a powder, and then you use that to garnish the dish. Or you might have to make chive oil. Or gnocchi from scratch. But here's the cool part, he doesn't say: it's not really that bad, it doesn't take so long, or some other comforting notion. He says: "it takes time, so take time. Take lots of time. Go in a slow, focused and attentive manner. You will learn and grow. Love the process, not just the result". Or, you know, something along those lines; not quite so overtly zen-like, but close enough.

It was, at least for me, as if I had always been waiting for someone to say those things, to get me really immersed in the experience of cooking something.

So a plan began forming: we would do a one-time, special, all day long cooking event: Nick and I would cook together (something we had also been talking about for a long time) a menu entirely taken from the French Laundry cookbook. Everyone would attend, and we would be serving food slowly, a dish every hour or so, throughout the day. Everyone would pitch in for the price of groceries, and we would try and pair a wine with each dish. It was an opportunity to experience some food that we would have otherwise never been able to afford on our own (i.e. truffles and caviar - the real deal, not paddlefish roe...), have a nice day by the pool-side (or at least everyone except Nick and I would; we would be busy in the kitchen...) and drink carefully selected wines. And we did it. This is what we served, with the drink pairings underneath:

Chips and Dip
Potato Chips with Truffle Dip
Chimay Première Ale, Belgium

Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Osetra Caviar
Mumm Cuvée Napa 21st Century Cuvée, Napa Valley 1997

White Truffle Oil-Infused Custards with Black Truffle Ragout
Mumm Cuvée Napa 21st Century Cuvée, Napa Valley 1997

Warm Smoked Salmon with Potato Gnocchi and Balsamic Glaze
Fess Parker Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County 2001

Yabba Dabba Doo
Roasted Rib Steak with Oyster Mushrooms, Pommes Anna, and Bordelaise Sauce
David Bruce Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Clara Valley 2001

Roquefort Trifle with French Butter Pear Relish
Fonseca Bin no 27 Port

Velouté of Bittersweet Chocolate with Cinnamon-Stick Ice Cream

What I hope will follow is the account of how these dishes were created by us. Keep in mind that none of us is trained in any way in professional or amateur cooking, we are all home-schooled, so to speak; and, none of us is rich: as a matter of fact, we are all pretty much broke as a joke, and the only way we could afford to do this was by having six people pitching in $50 each, some careful shopping, and the fact that the portions called for are small: the idea is that at the end of each course you should wish that you had one more bite of the deliciously yummy dish, but it's gone. Except that then the next thing comes and it's delicious again, in a completely different way. There's a whole section of the book about this, under the heading "The law of diminishing returns". Just one more reason why we love this book.

We had to face some difficulties in accomplishing these dishes, so maybe there is somebody else out there who is banging his or her head against the kitchen counter because they can't make those damn chive chips to come out band-aid-shaped and perfectly translucent like the picture in the book, and this could help. In the end, it was unbelievably good.

And now let's move on and talk about cooking!

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