Friday, December 3, 2010

Chicken Soup for the Cook's Soul

I've had quite a bit of down time in between classes. Daytime TV sucks, video games get old, I've seen every movie I own fifty times, and Hyde Park is about exciting as an old boot. Did I mention that my computer is in for repairs at the Apple Store? I've been running through my personal library for the past few days. I've also been expanding it.I forgot how much I love all of my books.

There's Marco Pierre White's "White Heat", a book from the original culinary rockstar, filled with incredible pictures and stories and anecdotes from possibly the most badass chef of all time. There's the Alinea cookbook. Alinea is a restaurant in Chicago, that literally blows my mind. I don't understand the food there at all. AT ALL, but the pictures of the plates they have put out take my breath away. There's Medium Raw, by one of my personal idols, Tony Bourdain. I could literally read the chapter about the Ortolan over and over. I read my favorite excerpts from Letters to a Young Chef by Daniel Boulud over and over. And finally, after I had gone through all of these, I came across possibly the book that means the most to me. "Last Suppers".

Let me start off by explaining something that non cooks really don't understand. When I tell people about myself, the first thing they ask me, which pisses me off to no end, is "What's your favorite thing to cook?" or "What's your favorite food?". I smile, through gritted teeth, and act like I'm racking my brain for a definite answer, flicking through mental images of everything I've ever cooked or eaten in my life. While actually, cursing that person inside my own head for asking me a question to which they do not want to know the answer. I love to cook... I don't love to cook steaks, pork chops, pasta, or pancakes in particular. I love the act of cooking, the feel of a hot burner radiating against my fore arms, gently flipping a piece of fish, the sound of deglazing a pan.I love it all. But I do have tendencies, and a personal philosophy in regards to food. I hold food sacred, a life giving deity that should be respected. But if I had to tell everyone that asked me the question something along those lines, I'd come off looking like somewhat of an ass, Wouldn't I? So I smile and respond... with whatever the last memorable thing I ate or cooked.

Having said that, cooks play a game,all around the world. A game where we ask each other about what our death row meal would be. Not what your favorite food is, but if you could eat one last bite, before you die, what tastes and textures would you want on your palate for the rest of eternity. And for cooks especially, food holds a special place in our heart. for myself and cooks everywhere, nothing has the power to invoke memories of people, places, and times in my life like food can.

Which brings me back to "Last Supper". The author asked fifty famous chefs what their death row meals would be, where it would take place, the music that would play, what they would drink, and who they would spend their last meal with. It's a very emotional book. But it is astonishing how similar everyone's meal is. Don't get me wrong, there are a few guys who want 12 course tasting menus, extravagant meals with thousands of people. But what struck me most was the simplicity of the majority of the answers. Jamie Oliver would have pasta all'arabiatta (spicy pasta), on the couch with his wife while watching "Some garbage on the television". Eric Ripert, the Chef of the greatest seafood restaurant in the country, maybe the world, would eat country bread, grilled with olive oil, and shaved truffles, under a tree in a field somewhere. Tony Bourdain would have roasted bone marrow on toast. This book has made me realize that the food we eat, however good it may be, is only as good as the company and the setting with which we enjoy it. Some of my favorite foods, the ones I hold most dear to my heart, I enjoy not only because they are delicious, but because in them, I relive some of the fondest memories I have with the people I shared these meals with.

For example, My jamaican patty obsession is partially fueled by the association I hold between the patties and my soccer buddies. We would go there after summer workouts, cram 8 people in a four seater booth, and enjoy our patties. Pork buns remind me of my first trip with my cook friends to NYC. We went for dim sum, and at the end, we all ordered barbecue pork buns. We loved them so much that we went back for seconds, and now every time we go we buy a few dozen to freeze back at school. My infatuation with bacon is without a doubt associated to breakfasts my Grandma would cook me before school when I was little. I would literally wake up to the smell of bacon and the sound of eggs frying in a skillet. Natures greatest alarm clock. Every food I have ever eaten is associated with a certain memory, some greater than others, but I hold each extremely close to me heart. When I'm old and senile, I know that, while I won't be able to remember my own name, when I take a bite of a hot pretzel with mustard and widmer's cheese spread, I'll picture a much younger me, sitting at the bar at Graze, drinking a beer and getting nasty notes on the back of my order ticket from Nate, the sous chef.

My death row meal, would be a symposium of my greatest food memories. A greatest hits album of sorts, comprised of my most memorable dining experiences, each with the people I enjoyed them with. I would have bacon and eggs with my grandparents. I would have Broad Ripple Bagel Deli with my sister. I would have patties of Jamaica with all of my soccer teammates. I would have Pork Buns with my friends in New York. I would have rotisserie chicken with my Dad. Homemade chex mix with my mom. I'd have Lobster Mac n Cheese with my Aunt and Uncle in Connecticut. I'd have Noodles and Co with Mary. I'd have 96th Street Steak Burger with Ryan. I'd have Pizza King with the Harrisons. I'd have Mug and Bun with all my boys on the West Side. And I'd have Saigon Noodle with the entire staff from L'Etoile and Graze. I'd have tacos al pastor with the kitchen crew at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. But to finish it all off... I'd probably just wander around New york City... and eat whatever I wanted. But I'd be by myself. I like being alone... with only the food in front of me as company... that's how it'd have to end.

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