It’s interesting how people look forward to retiring from their careers – something that they spent maybe 50 or more years of their life doing. It is also confusing to see how many can do so without a thought or regret. Maybe, if that time was spent doing something that was not really that enjoyable – this reaction makes sense. For me – not so much. Don’t get me wrong, I am plenty busy in my semi-retirement and keep my foot in the water with a consulting business that is still reasonably vibrant, a fair amount of writing, and an interesting podcast – but I do miss the kitchen. I started, after all, when I was 16 years old, so for all intents and purposes it is a part of who I am. So, I thought I would take a little trip down nostalgia lane and address the things that I remember and miss.
“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”
Well, working in a kitchen is a full sensory experience that is easy to embrace and hard to forget. I remember the morning smell of bacon, breads still fragrant from the night baker’s shift, fresh danish and croissant being pulled from the oven, and of course – the smell of coffee that permeates the air. I remember the aroma from a simmering veal or chicken stock – that lingering, tempting smell of roasted bones and caramelized mirepoix, the sweet aroma of candied garlic and onions browning as a coloring for the broth that would become soup, and sauce for various applications on the menu. I remember the rich aroma of a roast in the oven, the drippings from a 109 rib that would create the fond for the vibrant au jus that accents this incredible cut of meat and the smell of steaks on an open flame -searing the exterior of the muscle while the marbling of fat drips through the grate and laps up in return as golden flames. I can remember the intoxicating aroma of pommes frites frying a golden brown in a deep fryer and rosemary catching fire and releasing that intense smoke that draws you in. I miss that.
The sounds of the kitchen are ever apparent and all consuming, unless, of course, you are immune through constant exposure. The funny thing is your life never seems complete when those sounds are absent. The whir of the hood fans is hard to ignore and although many would claim that this din is annoying and hard to talk around, to those who work in kitchens it is just soothing background noise. The clanging of pots and pans as they hit metal to metal, the clink of dishes being stacked in the dishpit, and the ping of glassware – just enough to know that they are there, but not so much as to cause a break – these are sounds that are somehow comforting to a cook. That hiss when a fish fillet hits a cherry red hot sauté pan or scallops anxious for that perfect caramelization that squeak because the pan is so hot – hot enough to always release the protein as if it were a non-stick pan – these are audible signs that the right technique is at play.
The banter in the kitchen, at least until it gets out of hand, you know that competitive chatter that pushes everyone to step up their game, is somehow refreshing. The relentless clicking of the POS printer provides a rhythm that sets a tone on the line, and the orchestrated cadence established by the expeditor as he or she chants “order, fire, pick-up, or re-fire” is only superseded by the line cooks response of “Yes Chef”. The sounds of the kitchen build up to a crescendo as orders pile up and the kitchen reaches peak performance at the seven o’clock push. I miss that.
The kitchen is a visual banquet of incredible ingredients, passionate cooks, colors and exactness that culminate on the plate. I remember fondly, the beauty of fish orders flown in from Florida, opening the styro boxes that held perfectly fresh, whole Queen Snapper, Black Cod, Mahi Mahi, or Bronzini. The feel and smell of freshness was so present, waiting for the razor-sharp fillet knife to remove the flesh from bones. The brilliant red of local strawberries and their deep aroma is always something to pause and take in. Crisp greens for salad from a local farmer, perfectly marbled strip loins to be cut into beautiful steaks, sticky pink dry sea scallops or deep red tuna for sashimi is something to dream about.
A cook’s dedication to perfectly cut vegetables – batonnet, julienne, various size dice, and chiffonade attest to a passion to do things right; and that special plate that awaits magnificent turned potatoes and carrots with seven equal sides demonstrates that the cook will never sacrifice quality for quantity. When the garde manger takes the time to blanch, shock and peel tomatoes for a salad he or she is saying that every detail is important, and a demi-glace that is silky and sticky through hours of reduction and straining and finishing with raw butter points to excellence in every aspect of the word.
Finally, it all comes down to the plate. When each line cook takes that extra second or two to make sure that the plate is a reflection of the reputation of the kitchen, when each component is strategically placed on the plate to maximize the art in cuisine and this is done regardless of how busy the restaurant might be, you know that the crew is on their game. I miss that.
Mouthfeel is so important in cooking. The process of chewing, or in some cases allowing an item to melt in your mouth is so essential in building flavor experiences. A perfect braise leads to an item that melts off the bone, while still maintaining its chew and the silkiness that comes from doing it just right without drying out the dish. That perfectly cooked medium rare steak that defines chew and hangs on to the muscles full flavor, moisture and integrity is by far one of the most enjoyable dining experiences. A sauce that sticks to the inside of your palate and reminds you of its richness, moments after the item is consumed is a thing to behold and an art form in itself. And an incredibly fresh shucked oyster that promotes the brininess of the sea, the luscious nature of the muscle, and the exhilaration of enjoying seafood that has barely had time to adjust to being out of the water – is one of the most incredible sensations for a diner.
I remember the feel of a French or bird’s beak knife in my hand – the control that comes from this tool serving as an extension of your hand. I remember the feel of bread dough being kneaded on a floured board – taking shape and allowed to proof until your touch signals when it is ready for the oven. I remember the feel of cracking dozens of eggs with one hand – pulling the two shell halves apart between your thumb and index finger and allowing the yolk and white to fall gently into a bowl or separating the two parts – allowing the white to lift from its connection to the yolk when preparing to make a hollandaise or a meringue. I also think back to the sensitive touch of a steak when your fingers are able to judge degrees of doneness with the accuracy of a thermometer. I miss that.
Most of all, I remember the tastes that over decades of work built a flavor memory that allowed me, in many cases, to create a menu and various dishes knowing how items would taste even before they were built. The memory of vegetables in season, perfectly ripe fruits, fresh fish, different cuts of meat and poultry depending on what method of cooking was used, and how in combination certain foods would marry to create something totally different. I knew, not as well as some with perfect palates, but I still knew reasonably well what was lacking in a dish when it was tasted or, in some cases, how to compensate for an ingredient that was not mature or full flavored. I grew to know that those out-of-season tomatoes could take on the character of a fresh picked Roma in July if I sliced it in half, brushed it with olive oil and dusted it with sea salt as it was slid into a 200-degree oven for 90 – 120 minutes. I knew that time and low temperatures could do wonders with tougher cuts of meat – giving seasoning enough time to penetrate and transform a dish. I miss this as well.
I guess, conveniently, I choose to forget those difficult times when I was understaffed or overwhelmed. Those times when vendors were disappointing, when costs were out of line and financial performance was in question – they are not worthy of remembering. There were times when my own skills did not rise up to the occasion or the way that I handled a situation that required leadership was not what it should have been, but I learned from those situations and try to put them towards the back of the shelf. I’m good with that.
“Memories are like salt: the right amount brings out the flavor in food, too much, ruins it.”
– Paulo Coelho
The difference between cooking and some other professions is that your memories will never allow you to totally walk away. The impact on your senses will stay with you forever and for this I will always be grateful. I remain happy to remember what I miss.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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