Monday, March 21, 2011

The Bull and The Pig

Today was one of those days where I really enjoy being a student at the Culinary Institute of America. Few people have the privilege of waking up on an ordinary, snowy March morning, walking a hundred steps from their dorm room, and witnessing a mad genius, speaking of his philosophy towards food for an hour and a half. Then, sprint to the library across campus and witness a personal hero prepare a dish they have wet dreams about, and actually get to speak to her. The conversation may have only lasted a minute, but was more meaningful than a lot of conversations that person has had with most friends.

Yes, I am speaking of my experiences today, and the two chefs I am referring to are Ferran Adria, the Spaniard who has changed the way people think about food, forever, and the British chef who is doing (in my opinion) some of the greatest stuff on the planet right now and who I personally adore, April Bloomfield.

I went to the gym an hour early to try and get a seat for the Ferran Adria lecture, and when I arrived, I discovered that just about the entire school had the same idea as me, and that the entire gym had been reserved by teachers, and that in order to get a spot I would have to lie about whose class I was in, and risk the wrath of that instructor, but nothing was going to stand between myself and Ferran. So I jumped past the guard and snuck to a seat and waited for it all to begin.

When Ferran finally came out, I discovered that the discussion was to be about a new book released called "The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at El Bulli." El Bulli is the restaurant that changed it all; Ferran's mothership and a mecca for cooks and diners world wide. It is open for six months a year, and the other six months are spent at their test kitchen, developing the menu for the next season. They receive 2 million reservation requests anually, but can only fill 8,000 a year. Forty courses per guest come out of the kitchen for each of the forty some odd guests nightly. Ferran is so innovative, that he only has to pay about three or four of his kitchen employees. Cooks and executive chefs from the best restaurants all over the country beg the man to let them pick herbs for him. He bases his entire kitchen staff off of free, yet extremely skilled labor. Cooks jump at the opportunity to experience the works first hand, even if they do not speak spanish, or get paid. The book was about these stagiers, these nomadic students of cuisine.

Crazy dishes like liquid ham fritters, spherical olives that are like olive flavored gushers, Mussel spheres in a potato and bacon soup with dots of double cream and cubes of apple jelly, grace the menu and make the guest wonder if what theyre enjoying ever was in fact actually food. Ferran is both known as a genius for what he does, and a culinary terrorist for giving others the idea that they can do things he does, when in fact they cant. They can't take six months a year to just play around in a kitchen, they don't have an innumerable army of the most intelligent, talented, and passionate cooks begging to work crazy hours for no pay at all, and they don't have the balls to taste something, love it, put it in front of a guest who has traveled across the fucking planet and paid thousands of dollars in total just to eat your food, knowing fully well that half of the diners will hate it, and the other half of the diners will see it as the most brilliant bite of food they have ever had in their lives. These are the liberties that Ferran has developed, that make him a one of a kind chef at a one of a kind restaurant.

The most memorable moment of his speech was when he said something along these lines: People often think of my food as strange, because they dont understand it, but I don't believe it is. There is no such thing as strange cuisine, only strange cooks.

And god damn it, I smiled and took a little confidence out of that bold statement, because I am one strange fellow.

But El Bulli, the restaurant will close its doors in July, never to open for another service ever again. Instead Ferran is doing what he has always intended to do with the restaurant. He is opening it to the world, while closing it to guests. He's turning it into a food research institute, that posts live updates worldwide of all the innovations and developments his cooks are making, as they happen. You may not be able to eat his cuisine, but it will be more easily experienced than it ever was before.

As soon as he was finished I ran to the library to get a seat to see April Bloomfield prepare blood sausage with a fried duck egg. A dream dish for me. And she started it out in the most picturesque way possible. She began sweating a shit house of bacon and red onion, until it was a sweet, salty, porky jam. I was hooked.

She continued making the dish and taking questions and I was just admiring the process and quietly trying to muster up the courage to ask her the question I had been dying to ask. And just as she finished up the final touches on her dish, I raised my hand and was given a microphone. I just prayed that my voice wouldn't crack of I wouldn't choke on my own spit like I tend to do when I'm nervous. I took a breath, and these words slowly came out of my mouth.

"It's obvious that there is a trend towards utilizing offals in America, and I think that you're one of the people that should take a large part of the thanks for this happening. But when you first opened The Spotted Pig, were you at all tentative or nervous in implementing all these dishes with things like pigs ears, tongues, and livers to a target market that had never been introduced to these ingredients?" She smiled and looked me in the eye, which she didn't really do to anyone else. She stopped what she was doing to look at me, and to give me her direct response. Her answer was something like this:

You know what, I never really gave it a second thought. I wanted to serve my guests the things I love to eat and love to cook, and if they don't like it, well I really don't care. There are plenty of other restaurants in the neighborhood that will cater to their specific tastes. I cook the food I like, because its what I know and I do it with love.

I smiled, thanked her, and just like that the whole demo was over. I sat in my seat as the auditorium emptied and pondered her advice, paired with what Adria said. There was an overwhelming theme of both of the day's lectures. Do what you want to do, do it with passion, do it with love, and don't listen to any of the morons who try and knock you off your track because chances are you are more knowledgeable than they are. Take risks, for Christ's sake.

I graduate in less than 3 months. And these bits of advice and unlimited wisdom really helped ease some of the anxiety I have about leaving school for good, and trying to do what I need to do. I know what I need to do now. I'll be in touch with some friends in the Dairyland for advice, a point in the right direction, and to catch up on things. I've gotta talk to people at the CIA. ANd I've gotta let the people who I plan on working for know that I'm here, and I'm ready to hit the ground running.

Busy week ahead of me. Finishing wines and starting the restaurant life at the CIA. On top of trying to get all my other shit sorted out. Should be fun.


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